Cutting through the sandstorm of war is never easy, but companies interested in the business of Iraqi reconstruction already are finding a clear path to federal contracting agencies to jockey for work.
For some time, technology companies in particular have been plying the corridors of Washington for homeland security business, a saving grace for many beleaguered firms. Federal and state governments are the biggest sources of business these days, as the economic downturn continues to depress corporate spending.
The first concern was oil wells, which were feared to be targets of Iraqi forces as a way of keeping the oil out of Western hands.
This week, the contract for oil-well firefighting went to KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., in a deal that raised multiple eyebrows. From 1995 to 2000, Halliburton was run by Vice President Cheney. And the contract was awarded without competitive bidding, under an exemption for emergencies invoked by the Bush administration in January that allows government agencies to handpick companies for Iraqi reconstruction projects.
Meanwhile, the long run-up to the war enabled planners at the U.S. Agency for International Development to think ahead about what will be needed to rebuild Iraq.
The agency awarded a $7 million contract in February for overall assistance in coordinating reconstruction activities, as well as a contract for marine operations.
USAID officials are soliciting for several other contracts, including rebuilding local health services, managing humanitarian aid, upgrading schools and improving local governance. Although competitive bids are not required, USAID officials say they look at several possible vendors.
Critics worry that the contract process will not only lead to higher costs for U.S. taxpayers but also raise ticklish political issues about who, for example, should help Iraq with such things as printing textbooks and training teachers.
Fuel was poured on that fire by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who wants to make sure that U.S. technology is used to rebuild Iraq's wireless networks, rather than a competing European system that is used throughout the Middle East.
Qualcomm Inc., which makes the U.S. system, is based in San Diego, adjacent to Issa's district. Issa would not say who spoke with whom first, and the company wasn't talking at all. But the firm did give $5,500 to Issa's most recent campaign, making it one of his largest contributors.