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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- Saddam Hussein's capture has great symbolic value, and we can only hope it will help end the violence that rages daily.

But even with Saddam in the slammer, some other situations are not likely to change.

As politically connected war profiteers count their cash and lick their chops for more money, Charmyn Levi worries about putting food on the table and the shutoff notice she just got from the gas company.

She says she doesn't want to cry, but does, as she whispers, "I feel like I lied to my children because I told them Daddy was coming home. People don't know how hard it gets. I was just trying to protect my kids."

That's the story she told at Thanksgiving to her four daughters, ages 11, 9, 7 and 4. The youngest, Diamond, runs around the house with childish innocence and curiosity, playing with the microphone and poking her mother for attention as we try to tape an interview.

Charmyn now says she can no longer hide the truth. She hopes and prays her husband makes it home for Christmas, but she simply doesn't know.

Thomas Levi Jr. is a U.S. Army Reservist stationed in Iraq. He's been on active duty for 10 months.

The Levis moved from Iowa to Detroit a couple months before Tom's unit was called up. Tom is a carpenter. He had a full-time job at Home Depot and did home repair work on the side. They were doing well. He adores his wife and daughters and they miss him.

Tom spent three years in the regular Army and he's been in the Reserves for nine years. When he moved to Detroit, he transferred to a unit in nearby Livonia, Mich. Tom loves the military, and the weekend meetings provided a little extra cash for his family.

He didn't complain when his unit was called up for active duty. But his long absence has put a severe strain on his young family. The military pay is less than half of what Tom earned as a civilian. Charmyn works part-time as a teacher's aide for $6 an hour.

"At first, I thought I could make it, but now I'm not sure," Charmyn says softly. "People have to understand how difficult this is."

Her life is now filled with fear, uncertainty and sacrifice.

Bills are piling up. The car needs repairs. The cupboards are nearly bare. There are only two small gift packages under the Christmas tree. The girls miss their dad. Charmyn says she will get them some things for Christmas, but that means she'll be late with another bill.

Her Christian faith sustains her. She is not bitter, but says something has to be done to help families like hers, torn apart and suffering because of the war in Iraq.

Sacrifice for the war and occupation has been terribly inconsistent.

Certainly the worst is for the troops and the Iraqi people confronting death every day.

The Iraqi Health Ministry has ordered a halt to the count of civilian casualties from the war.

The Associated Press investigated civilian casualties and found the death total between March 20 and April 20 topped 3,400.

Surveys of Iraqi hospitals were expected to show that figure is considerably higher. No one is explaining why the count has been stopped. Iraqi families know their losses. It's just not politically correct to let the world know, or so goes the thinking of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

The families owning Halliburton shares are doing just dandy. So are the Bush family, the Baker Botts law firm, the Carlyle Group and many others prospering from the occupation of Iraq.

The Halliburton price-gouging is as transparent as it is disgusting. Vice President Cheney's old company may have overbilled American taxpayers by as much as $61 million for trucking gasoline into Iraq. Halliburton charged the Pentagon $2.64 a gallon for fuel that others were importing at $1.08 to $1.19 per gallon.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has a nose for corporate greed. For months, he's been pressing the Pentagon and White House to answer questions about Halliburton's dealings in Iraq. The company has raked in nearly $16 billion dollars in no-bid contracts.

The Pentagon is, not surprisingly, downplaying the overcharges, claiming Halliburton was not profiteering, but simply failed to get a better price from the fuel supplier and was passing on the high price to the government.

Waxman told "Salon" online magazine, "At best, I would think it's mismanagement, but at worst it's government-sanctioned profiteering." Call me cynical, but I think the hoods at Halliburton are into greed, not stupidity. This was a case of getting caught in the act of hyper-greed.

Interestingly, the Pentagon did catch Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root subsidiary trying to pull a fast one with a military cafeteria-services contract in Iraq. It seems the proposal was a mere $67 million too high. Defense Department officials told the AP that they had no reason to believe the contract problems were anything other than "stupid mistakes" by Halliburton.

I don't buy it.

In 2000, the General Accounting Office found Halliburton had some questionable billings for military support contracts for operations in the Balkans. The company charged the Army $85.98 per sheet of plywood (actual cost: $14.06), and billed the government for cleaning offices up to four times a day. God, there is nothing like a tidy free-enterpriser.

By the way, who do you suppose got paid for that turkey prop the president brought to the troops on Thanksgiving? You got it -- Halliburton. Look real hard. You can see Dick Cheney's image in the stuffing.

Until late last week, the White House ducked all inquiries about the Halliburton deals, responding to none of Waxman's numerous letters. Finally, George W. promises a thorough investigation, saying, "And if there is an overcharge, like we think there is, we expect that money will be repaid."

What a great deal. You can steal millions, but if you're caught, you have to pay the money back.

The president defended his appointment of James A. Baker III as his envoy for talks on Iraq's debt. No conflict for Baker, whose Baker Botts law firm represents the Carlyle Group, which has vast investments in the Middle East, the Saudi royal family in many of its dealings and, of course, Halliburton.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says Baker "has taken significant steps to avoid even the potential for a conflict of interest."

How do you say something like that and keep a straight face? It really is an art.

Baker, McClellan insists, would "renounce his partnership share of any fees his law firm received from clients who might pose a conflict of interest." Now who, pray tell, will determine that?

The president's brother Neil is on the Iraq gravy train. He's writing letters for an undisclosed fee on behalf of New Bridge Strategies, a new company set up to help other companies win contracts in Iraq.

One of the principals in the company is Joe Allbaugh, George W.'s presidential campaign manager and chief of staff when he was Texas governor. Three people have told the British Financial Times they got letters from Neil Bush urging them to join in business ventures in the Middle East that he and New Bridge Strategies are involved in.

God, what patriots!

The Bush administration, in a blatant act of retaliation against countries that opposed the war, is excluding them from bidding on $18.6 billion in reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Nations like France, Germany, Russia and Canada are banned from the work.

The move is shortsighted and stupid, but emblematic of the "You're either with us or with the terrorists" mentality of the cowpoke in the Oval Office.

Russia is Iraq's No. 1 trading partner.

Germany has done more to hunt down real al-Qaeda terrorists than any nation on earth.

France has vast experience in the Middle East and in dealing with Islamic nations.

Canada just contributed $150 million to help rebuild Iraq.

Even the conservative Weekly Standard says the move adds fuel to the charge the Bush administration is prone to "vindictive pettiness."

William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote, "A truly wise American administration would have opened the bidding to all comers, regardless of their opposition to the war -- as a way of buying those countries into the Iraq effort, building a little goodwill for the future and demonstrating to the world a little magnanimity. But instead of being smart, clever, or magnanimous, the Bush administration has done a dumb thing." Amen.

A lot of dumb, greedy and insensitive things are being done these days.

People are getting fat and rich off the war in Iraq, while Tom Levi is stuck there and his family suffers greatly.

Let's hope Saddam's capture will hasten Levi's return home.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com December 16 2003