WASHINGTON – Hundreds of protesters picketed the offices of the Halliburton and Bechtel corporations in 20 cities, Feb. 24, with signs reading “Merchants of Death” and “Stop the corporate invasion of Iraq.”

Their protests came amid a spreading scandal over fraudulent billing by Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), on contracts for the “reconstruction” of Iraq.

Halliburton’s greed is so insatiable that even the Pentagon was forced to launch an investigation. The House Government Reform Committee is also conducting hearings on the scandal. Halliburton’s former CEO, Vice President Dick Cheney, who received a $30 million golden parachute when he left the company, is still receiving $150,000 each year in deferred salary from Halliburton. His secretive Energy Policy Task Force has drafted an energy bill loaded with new sugarplums for his company.

G. Simon Harak, a War Resisters League organizer in New York, told the World he joined 50 others outside Bechtel’s offices in mid-Manhattan Feb. 24. “I think more and more people are aware of the billions in Iraq contracts handed out to these corporations that are so closely linked to Bush and Cheney. They want to know more and that’s why we have this ‘Merchants of Death’ project.”

The issue is resonating in the labor movement. Gene Bruskin, co-convener of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), urged trade union members to join in the nationwide March 20 demonstrations on the theme, “The World Still Says No to War.”

In a statement, Bruskin declared, “While Bush is putting the Iraqi economy up for sale to the highest bidder, Iraqi workers are being paid near-starvation wages under the [Coalition Provisional Authority] wage scale and being denied the right to organize under Saddam Hussein-era labor laws. This is the ultimate hypocrisy for an administration that pretends to be an advocate for the Iraqi people.”

A statement by USLAW cites the rising toll of dead and wounded, both occupation soldiers and Iraqis, and the deepening economic and social crisis. Bechtel was awarded $3 billion to restore Iraqi electricity and water. But the Iraqi people are still waiting.

“All this for what? To make Iraq safe for Halliburton, Bechtel, and a host of other corporate cronies of the Bush administration,” the grassroots labor group charged. “End the occupation! Bring our troops home! Money for jobs, health care, and schools – not for profits and war!”

The Pentagon’s chief auditor told the House hearing that KBR submitted bills totaling more than $3 billion that were so lacking in documentation that Pentagon auditors rejected them. KBR followed up with a new bill that was $700 million cheaper but then hastily withdrew it “due to continuing pricing issues.” KBR was forced to refund the Pentagon $27.4 million for food it failed to deliver to U.S. troops in the notorious privatization of support services for occupation forces. Many U.S. occupation soldiers complained they were limited to one bottle of water per day in the sweltering desert heat because of KBR corporate incompetence.

Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, exposed Halliburton’s attempt to scam taxpayers of $61 million in overcharges for gasoline trucked from Kuwait to Iraq. Two Halliburton employees took $6.3 million in kickbacks in that gasoline swindle. So far, Halliburton has been awarded $5 billion in Iraqi contracts. Government analysts project the total will swell to $18 billion. The Pentagon has drafted a new no-bid contract that would hand over to Halliburton the marketing of Iraqi oil.

The corruption is so pervasive that the Pentagon had to ask the Justice Department to launch an investigation. Any Justice Department investigation “implies there is potential for criminal charges against the company,” Stephen Gengaro, an oil field services analyst for the Jeffries & Co. investment firm, told the Wall Street Journal.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.