More to NZ’s tour of duty than meets the eye

A LEAKED report reveals the 61 New Zealand Army engineers caught up in the Iraq conflict have spent only a fraction of their time helping rebuild services for Iraqi civilians.

The government has repeatedly said New Zealand’s military presence in Iraq was contributing “vital humanitarian and reconstruction work”. However, a confidential report prepared seven weeks ago_after the engineers had been in Iraq for five months_said the engineers had done less than 10% of the humanitarian and reconstruction work anticipated.

The late February report, marked “restricted”, states of $5 million allocated for “reconstruction and humanitarian aid tasks”, only about $400,000 was spent in the first five months of work. It was predicted the rate of work might decrease and by the end of the financial year (after nine months) less than 15% of the funds would have been used.

When the engineers went to Basra last September Defence Minister Mark Burton said they would “work to repair and refurbish hospitals, health clinics, schools, police stations, law courts and municipal and government buildings” and restore electricity, water and bridges.

However, after five months only six projects had been completed_five of them relatively minor construction work on school buildings: St Mary’s College ($44,000), Hamdan School ($17,000), Al Oroba School ($148,000), Al Marbid School ($87,000), and Al Scola School ($27,000). At inflated local building material prices, this is about the amount of materials that go into a large New Zealand house.

The sixth project concerned water services, especially overseeing installation of a reverse osmosis water purifying plant_costing a further $52,000. These six projects are the only work fitting the definition of reconstruction and humanitarian aid, for which the $5m of New Zealand official aid money was allocated. The report concludes most of the money will have to be returned to NZAID.

In the same week as thereport was dated, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a second six-month deployment of engineers to Iraq. She said the engineers had “made important contributions to restoring and establishing core services” including bringing “clean water to 200,000 people for the first time in a generation”. But $52,000 doesn’t bring clean water to a population the size of Wellington. As the risks of participating in Iraq have grown, the engineers’ achievements have been exaggerated to justify the continued deployment.

The New Zealand projects represent a minute part of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and only a small fraction of the 61 Kiwi engineers’ time. The detachment includes seven carpenters who alone could have handled the five school projects. What are the rest doing? According to defence documents, they are embedded in the occupation forces, helping British Army engineers maintain coalition infrastructure and transport routes and doing security duties and mine detection.

There are New Zealand staff officers and support staff in the main coalition headquarters at Basra airport and regimental headquarters at Shaibah, mainly assisting general British Army activities. As the Sunday Star-Times reported in December, a leaked defence memo noted: “Do not underestimate how important filling the staff officer positions is. It will not only give us a say in how our people are employed, it will give us high visibility on the ground and earn us huge gratitude from the Brits who are very strapped for staff officers.”

According to other documents, there are 16 “logistics personnel dispersed within the UK Engineering Regiment”. They have jobs such as repairing British military vehicles and vessels (not only ones used by New Zealanders as the government has claimed).

There are 15 field engineers who, since arriving in Basra, have spent much of their time building defences around British military compounds and other coalition sites and helping keep transport routes open.

In internal defence documents_and foreign news stories_all 61 Kiwis are referred to as “coalition forces”.

The thinking behind the six reconstruction projects chosen for the New Zealand engineers is shown by another document, a July 2003 letter from a British officer to New Zealand’s London defence attach, commodore Peck. The letter is headed “Operation Telic [the British Iraq force]_New Zealand Contribution” and details “where we [the British Army] are in the development of the planned New Zealand participation in Iraq”.

The letter reiterated all the New Zealand officer appointments in the British headquarters were “intended to ensure NZ visibility” and said the priority for reconstruction duties was “quick win humanitarian projects”. New Zealand was being allocated small “quick win” PR opportunities for the coalition forces while the real hard work of restoring and establishing core services, costing hundreds of millions, has been left to the UN, aid agencies and private contractors.