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What role can UK firms play in Iraq?

AGENDA

THE CAUTION shown by British contractors and consultants in volunteering their services for rebuilding war-torn Iraq is understandable.

Firms are clearly sensitive to looking like cynical ambulance-chasers, although this concern is not shared by their US counterparts.

But the attitude in the UK does not tell the whole story. Those that offered their services during the reconstruction of Kuwait after the last Gulf War learned important lessons when just one or two of the biggest players picked up seemingly token contracts.

There is no reason to believe things will be different this time round. Within the next few days the biggest of the civil rebuilding contracts, funded by the US State department, will be awarded to a US engineering giant.

After some lobbying by our Government, it has been suggested that British firms could, if bids are realistic, win a few parcels of subcontracted work.

It may seem that we are being sidelined after our troops stood shoulder-to-shoulder with US forces. But is it unrealistic to expect more? The fact is, whether we like it or not, the country funding reconstruction puts most of the work the way of its own contractors and consultants.

The real issue here is that UK firms have a lot to offer, immediately and in the longer term. Being wholly reliant on the US to get a foothold is a mistake. There are good political reasons for the separation of aid and trade.

But a fresh approach is needed where humanitarian reconstruction is concerned.

The Government must establish a special fund to start rebuilding. It has been done before for Serbia, albeit on a small scale, and it can be done in Iraq. At present more than 80 firms from construction and allied industries have said they are interested in Iraq. In truth, few will fulfil this ambition under the present circumstances.