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US 'used forced labour to build Iraq embassy'

London Telegraph | June 9, 2007
Damien McElroy

America is investigating whether forced labour was used to build its vast new embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone.

Disaffected employees have alleged that workers from Asia and West Africa were deceived in Kuwait into flying to Baghdad by being given boarding passes that said Dubai for chartered flights to Iraq.

Once on the ground, an unspecified number of labourers had their passports seized, effectively trapping the workers in Iraq for the duration of their contracts.

Although the labourers are relatively well paid, receiving $1,000 (£550) a month, they endured harsh conditions on the site.

Federal prosecutors working for the US Department of Justice have taken up the allegations, which were rejected in a State Department inquiry but partially supported by Defence Department auditors.

First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting, the company that won the $600 million contract to build the 104-acre compound, has rejected the accusations as "ludicrous." It said it complied with all US contracting laws.

"First Kuwaiti is proud of its accomplishments and of its efforts to build the US embassy in Baghdad on time, within budget, and in compliance with the law," the company said in a statement.

John Owens, an American who worked on the project, said he was handed a boarding card for Dubai along with dozens of workers from Third World countries who were unaware they would be travelling to Iraq.

"I felt bad for those folks every day that I was in Iraq, and the feelings just built and built," Mr Owens told the Wall Street Journal. "They were basically being treated like slaves."

Howard Krongard, the State Department Inspector General, who visited the site in September, said he could find no evidence to support Mr Owens's allegations.

But a Pentagon investigation into contractors operating in Iraq said it had identified abuses, some of which were "widespread."

Juvencio Lopez, a former foreman on the project, said workers were forced to the brink of rioting during protests over unsanitary working conditions at the site.

Security guards with unholstered guns menaced workers engaged in sit-downs. There were reports of labourers sleeping 20 to a room and being forced to drink water from the polluted Tigris when supplies ran scarce.

It is one of the most dangerous building projects in the world.

The forest of 21 high-rise towers on the west bank of the Tigris in central Baghdad will house 3,000 staff working in America's largest mission.

The inquiry threatens to take the shine off one of the few US projects in Iraq that is being completed on time and within budget.

Until September, the American ambassador, his staff and a large contingent of US troops are squeezed into Saddam Hussein's marble-clad Republican Palace.

The presence of troops means the embassy bars are shuttered to ensure that guns and alcohol do not mix.

 

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