Tue Aug. 11, 2009
Elizabeth Gettelman
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Today, Mother Jones published a major investigative article by Shane Bauer, a journalist who is one of the three American hikers detained in Iran after accidentally crossing the border while hiking in Kurdistan. (He was not on assignment for Mother Jones at the time.) The story, in the magazine's September/October issue, was reported earlier this year and went to press before Bauer was detained on July 31; with the issue arriving in subscribers' homes this week, the editors, in consultation with Bauer's family, decided to release it simultaneously online. "We didn't want speculation or a mischaracterization about the story's content, and the best way to do that is to provide the full text itself," said Mother Jones Coeditor Clara Jeffery. "Shane is a terrific investigative journalist who has been published widely," added Coeditor Monika Bauerlein. "This story is a perfect example of the deeply reported, thorough, and accurate work he does."

Bauer's article, "The Sheikh Down," is an examination, based on numerous interviews and government documents, of the US government's spending in Iraq. Bauer finds that millions in reconstruction funding have been used to award inflated contracts to Sunni sheikhs to keep them and their followers from taking up arms against the US troops. "The program was a major part of the Awakening, which the Pentagon has touted as a turning point in reducing violence and creating the conditions for an American withdrawal," Bauer reports. "It was also a reinstitution of a strategy started by Saddam Hussein, who picked out tribal leaders he could manipulate through patronage schemes. The US military didn't give the sheikhs straight-up bribes, which would have raised eyebrows in Washington. Instead, it handed out reconstruction contracts. Sometimes issued at three or four times market value, the contracts have been the grease in the wheels of the Awakening in Anbar—the almost entirely Sunni province in western Iraq where Fallujah is located."

The program has seen little oversight from Washington—battalion commanders are allowed to hand out contracts up to $500,000 without approval from their superiors. In one case Bauer examines, a clinic described by US Army Lt. Colonel Chris Hastings as a "patronage project," the military paid a Sunni sheikh $488,000. "Yet Hastings estimates that it will cost around $100,000 to build," Bauer writes. That's, as Lt. Col. Hastings notes, "a pretty good profit margin,"—close to 80 percent. In comparison, KBR, the largest military contractor in the country, cleared 3 percent in profits in 2008. Halliburton scored around 14 percent."

But while the "make-a-sheikh" program is defended by some officials as business as usual in a country rife with corruption, many experts warn that it could destabilize Iraq in the long term. Peter Harling, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, tells Bauer, "The pillaging of state resources is not a particularly good strategy. It creates a culture of predators and a lot of resentment from those who don't take part in those contracts. You might lavish one tribal leader with contracts but alienate 10 others." Sam Parker, an Iraq programs officer at the United States Institute of Peace, is also concerned that the strategy could backfire. "Contracts are inflated because they are only secondarily about the goods and services received," he tells Bauer. "It's very problematic. You are rewarding the guys with the guns."

"The Sheikh Down" is available online here. To arrange press interviews please contact Elizabeth Gettelman, or 415-321-1759.