by Herbert Docena
MADRID, OCTOBER 23: The US-convened donors' conference on Iraq opened heretoday amid questions about a missing $4 billion in Iraqi oil revenues whichthe US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) could not account for. As the US began pleading for up to $36 billion in reconstruction funds, the bigger question for most of the potential donor's representatives was less "How much are we giving?" but "Where have all those billions gone?
"The British charity agency Christian Aid began the day distributing reports which allege that up to $4 billion of all the funds that have been transferred to the CPA after the war "has effectively disappeared into a financial blackhole."
Blackhole in whose pockets?
In addition to the $1 billion leftover from the UN Oil for Food Program before the war, the CPA should have received $1.5 billion in post-war oil revenues as well as $2.5 billion in seized assets from the Saddam Hussein regime. "Yet, incredibly, these billions of dollars have never been publicly accounted for," Christian Aid said.
The agency had been hounding the CPA and the UN to shed some light on the expenses but were not given any answers. They quoted one senior diplomat as saying, "We have absolutely no idea how the money has been spent. I wish I knew, but we just don't know. We have absolutely no idea."
In an interview at the press center here, Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid said CPA head Paul Bremer, who's attending the conference along with around 100 Iraqi delegates, was very agitated by their revelations. "Now they don't even want to answer reporters' questions about our allegations," Nutt said.
Moment of hope
As the negotiations went underway, questions surrounding the missing $4 billion did not help to allay potential donor's misgivings about giving funds to the occupation. EU external commissioner Chris Patten said the US needs to account for the missing funds first before they can persuade others to give more.
Already, US State Secretary Colin Powell has been trying to lower expectations on the total amount that will be raised. It probably was not very reassuring for him that, while 58 countries are participating, only 17 of them sent senior and high-ranking officials. One out four participants here were Madrid-based ambassadors who were just assigned to drop by; France and Germany sent low-level bureaucrats.
Billing the conference as a "moment of hope" for Iraq, UN Secretary General Kofi Anan opened the conference arguing that while he looks forward to the day when the Iraqis are finally granted back their sovereignty, "the start of reconstruction cannot be deferred to that day. On behalf of the US, he pressed the donor countries "to give and give generously."
Donors or robbers?
Meanwhile, as the day closed, around 2,000 workers and students gathered in downtown Madrid - straight out of their offices and classrooms - to protest against the negotiations in the conference that was being held at the heavily guarded Campo de los Naciones, a convention complex around 12 kilometers from the city center.
"This conference is a sham," said Hugo Casteli, one of those who marched."It is to justify spending money for American and Spanish corporations while claiming that the money is for Iraqi people."
Iraq must be rebuilt, Casteli said, and the Iraqi people must be given all the help. "But it must be paid for by the Americans since they were responsible for the destruction."
Ornella Sangiovanni, an Italian with the Baghdad-based International Occupation Watch Center, said she came all the way to Madrid to ask governments not to donate any money to Iraq for as long as the occupation forces have not withdrawn.
Christian Aid's revelations, she said, only proves that there can be no transparency for as long as the US calls the shots. This donor's conference, Sangiovanni said in an interview, could only signal the move from a unilateral to a multilateral corporate invasion.
The good guys?
Chanting "Robbers not Donors!" and "Resistance not Terrorism!," the protesters waved banners that read "We are the United Nations without the United Nations," "Donation = Domination," "Bush, pirate and beggar, out!," and "Another world is possible!" With the Aznar government having pledged $300 million to the conference, the protesters shouted "$300 million for pension, not for the occupation!"
As the protesters marched up one of downtown Madrid's busy but narrow avenues, a long single file of Spanish riot police also marched beside them, on the sidewalk. As many as 5,000 police have been mobilized to secure a conference attended by high-profile personalities such as Bremer, Powell,and Anan. They protesters and the police converged at the historic Plaza del Sol, where the Spanish have been holding political rallies since 1803.
Above, a police helicopter hovered.
"They're passing themselves as the good guys who are kind enough to give money to the Iraqis," one of the protesters Nevenka Franisch said, indignant. "They've been blackmailing people by making them feel guilty about not giving money to those needy Iraqis when in fact it's them who will benefit."
Franisch, who is normally reluctant to join demonstrations, said she decided to join the march because she was outraged that the Iraqis are being made to pay for what others destroyed. "Nobody has the right to rob people after killing them," Fransich said.