The scraps of war

The hair-raising saga of the American-Israeli businessman and his ill-fated scrap metal adventure.

saddam statue 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
saddam statue 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
It was the moment that could make or break a business venture I know who you are, you're a thief robbing the Iraqi people of their riches," the captain shouted at him. Josh, who at that moment saw the deal he had spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars on going up in smoke, yelled back, "what're you talking about, we're here promoting capitalism." But it wasn't only money at stake. Josh was 140 km. inside Iraq, driving in his car that had left Jerusalem in the early hours of that morning. His kippa was stowed away inside and the only defense he had was his United States passport, the Jordanian license-plates screwed onto the Israeli-registered vehicle and two Shiite guides gradually growing more restless, hot and hungry. Meanwhile, the consignment of valuable scrap metal that he had already paid for and risked his life to ship across the border - three trucks loaded with brass, detritus of quarter of a century of Middle East warfare - had disappeared somewhere near no-man's-land, confiscated by his own countrymen. He had no choice but to make his way back over the pot-holed road to the Jordanian border empty-handed before night-fall. But first, the two Shiites who had been waiting patiently in the car demanded to stop for a meal. "There I was, a Jew from Israel sitting in an Iraqi restaurant, surrounded by Arab truck-drivers all eating fried pieces of sheep," Josh recalled. "Of course I couldn't eat anything myself, there was nothing kosher." It was the first attempt of an Israeli-based company to open up trade with Iraq. Josh, an American businessman living in Israel, is the classic young Jewish pioneer who came to make his fortune in Israel in the 1970s with his wife after a typical American education and upbringing. But that's where the similarity to other olim ends. Instead of settling down to an insular life in one of the Anglo colonies in Jerusalem, Ra'anana or Efrat, Josh set out on making his career in the risky business of scrap metal trading. And on the sharp edge of the business. Josh obviously is not his real name. He has to be careful not to put any of his business associates, operating in the West Bank and in neighboring countries, at risk. In over three decades in the trade, he built up a name for scrupulous honesty and a capability to ensure shipments of materials to anywhere in the world. It's a high-risk business, forever on the lookout for legitimate sources of scrap. A business where many local traders turn a blind eye when someone turns up with a truck loaded with metal of dubious origin. Over the last few years, skyrocketing prices of metals needed to satisfy the ever-growing industrial and urban build-up in China and India have meant the stripping of sign posts and safety fences from roadsides around Israel. Local gangs of metal thieves have even taken to lifting plaques and statues from IDF memorial sites. Police raids on pirate scrap yards revealed parts of combat planes and even a piece of a submarine. The illegal trade makes survival ever more difficult for the legitimate metal merchants, like Josh, who are in the business for the long haul. When the US and British armies invaded Iraq in March 2003, Josh thought he had found the perfect opportunity. "I always remembered the stories of the old-timers in the scrap business who had made their fortunes straight after the Six Day War in 1967," said Josh. "The IDF gave them tenders to clear up whole sectors of bombed tanks and other armored vehicles left behind after the fighting. It was obvious that there was a whole lot of scrap to be found in Iraq after three major wars - Iran-Iraq, the first Gulf War and the new war - and because of the UN sanctions, none of that scrap had come out." But Josh's facilities were in Israel, and there was no question of shipping military scrap out of Iraq and into the Zionist entity. "I knew that it would have to be coming out through Jordan," he continued. "They were the only country trading with Iraq before the war and already had a huge truck fleet. Jordan was the main entrance into Iraq, so the logical thing would be to ship the metal through the port of Aqaba." Shortly after the fall of Baghdad and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, Josh was already in Jordan, setting up meetings with local businessmen and officials. During a visit to Jordan's main industrial city, Zarqa, he realized that scrap metal was already getting through. Since the only export allowed out of Iraq for years was oil, the much more valuable metal was being smuggled through inside the oil tankers. "You would see in the yards of Zarqa metal ingots covered in oil, so it was obvious how they were getting through," he explained. After a few weeks, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began easing export regulations and more metal shipments began coming out. Josh obviously wasn't the only one with the same idea and Arab traders, joined by Indian and Pakistanis, were all trying to bring trucks of brass, copper, aluminum, lead and steel out of the war-zone. Josh even met one Israeli posing as an Arab. "All of a sudden, Zarqa was becoming the scrap capital of the Middle East, tens of thousands of tons began pouring out of Iraq," said Josh. BUT BEFORE he could get in on the action, he had to overcome a number of obstacles. Due to a temporary liquidity problem, he had trouble finding the necessary funds for the first shipment. He also needed partners with the correct connections within Iraq, and the quality of scrap coming out of Iraq was so low that most of his regular customers would have nothing to do with it. In their local furnaces, the Iraqis would smelt ammunition casings together with tank and personnel carrier armor and copper wire. "It reminded me of Mao, who had told the Chinese to make iron in their backyards. It looked like everyone was doing it but no one knew how," Josh explained. "They were throwing everything into the ingots, lead and brass together." Sometimes there would be ingots made out of metal covered concrete. "I saw the quantities and quality at Zarqa and decided to go up to the border to see for myself what was legal." He took his own car from Jerusalem, changed license-plates at the Sheikh Hussein crossing and drove into the Jordanian desert. At the Iraq crossing, after his passport was checked, he got called into an upstairs office. "Where do you want to go," asked the man in civilian clothes. "To the other side," Josh answered. "You'll get yourself killed," he said, but eventually let him through with a laugh. They drove into what was then no-man's-land. The border area was still full of refugees stranded there from the war and at the Iraqi post, Saddam's statue was still standing. "It was hot as hell, the placed looked like a Mexican border town. There was a restaurant there that served only pita and eggs," Josh remembered. At the side of the road stood a Hummvee of the US 3rd Cavalry. He asked the sergeant in command of the vehicle what kinds of metal he could bring through the crossing, and the sergeant answered that only brass and aluminum were allowed by CPA regulations. Josh headed back after making sure to have his passport stamped with an Iraqi seal and his picture taken with Saddam's statue. The next month was occupied with finding investors willing to fund the first shipments and making contacts with Jordanian businessmen with contacts inside Iraq. The original plan was to take the metal through the border to Israel and ship it from Haifa. That would have made it easier to find customers, since the fact that the metal had been through Israeli security meant little chance of explosives or bombs hidden in the shipment. But the procedure turned out to be too complicated, and he started out like the other traders, setting up business in Zarqa. "While I was getting the funding together, I spent a lot of time in Zarqa," said Josh. "At first I tried to keep a low profile, but the police would come up and ask me, 'Are you a Jew?' I always said yes, I couldn't really hide it. Everybody knew that I kept kosher and wouldn't eat their meat. I also never worked on Shabbat. Besides, my cell phone was a 972 area code." FINALLY the contacts were in place. Funds had been located, a buyer found in Taiwan who was prepared to buy low-grade material, a trader willing to do business located within Iraq through Shiite middlemen and the first shipment of brass paid for with a six-figure sum. But on the day of the shipment, the three trucks carrying the brass didn't turn up at the border. They had been confiscated at a roadblock by the US army. For the second time Josh crossed the border into Iraq, met the same cavalry sergeant who said that he couldn't help and that his commanding officer, a Lieutenant Richmond, was 140 km. down the road, in Rutba, deep inside Iraq. "There I was in my Israeli car, inside Iraq with only a couple of Shiites with me and I realized that the entire future of this venture was down this pot-holed road and I didn't know if I could get through it safely," recalled Josh. "I called my wife on my cell phone, told her I would be off-line for about six hours and off we drove." After 140 km., they arrived at the outskirts of Rutba and saw a US army base on a ridge opposite the road. "I just got out of the car and started jumping and waving a white piece of paper at what was said to be a US base on the ridge until eventually two jeeps came out towards me," he said. "Captain Parker got out with his gun pointed at me and I went up to him and said 'Hi, I'm Josh Eizenbaum from Albany, New York.'" After the shouting match described earlier between the two, the captain agreed to call his colonel, leaving Josh to wait in the car by the base. "Somehow word got out that I was Jewish and soldiers were coming up to the car to say hi and they were Jewish, too." Three hours later, a negative answer came over the radio from the colonel, who was a few more hours down the road in Ramadi, and also made it clear that the colonel was dealing with scavengers and fortune-hunters. Josh almost decided to carry on driving but realized that his two Shiites were on the verge of mutiny after spending long hours in the hot car. Josh returned safely to Jordan, but without the brass he had spent his scarce funds on. OVER THE next few weeks, he tried every possible contact to get through to Paul Bremmer, the head of the CPA, but to no avail. The shipment seemed to have disappeared into a void and the coalition forces had better things to do than go looking for someone's lost brass. A relative back in the US even had his senator, a member of the influential Armed Forces Committee, send a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the situation and the importance of helping American businessmen who are opening Iraq for free trade. It didn't seem to have any effect, but he sent a copy of the letter to Josh in Jordan. After weeks of trying, he obtained a set of CPA rules that specifically stated that exporting metal from Iraq was allowed, and Josh headed back for Iraq. By then, a different unit was stationed at the border. He found the officer in command playing soccer with some locals. He introduced himself and explained his predicament, but the lieutenant said he had no idea of the export regulations. In his exasperation, he recounted the whole story and mentioned the Rumsfeld letter. The lieutenant was impressed and asked to see the letter. When he saw the names on it, including that of his colonel, who had been so dismissive on the last visit, he quickly said, "Okay mister, take your trucks, just make sure that Secretary Rumsfeld never gets my name." Josh got directions to the parking lot but once there, found the piles of scrap but no trucks, and his Iraqi and Jordanian associates had not ordered any since they didn't believe he would succeed in releasing the shipment. For six hours he waited for new trucks to arrive from Ramadi while passing the time discussing the World Series with the homesick American soldiers. When they finally arrived, there were no workers to help him load them. The guards at first were reluctant to let him go until one of the GIs shouted, "he's one of us, guys," and helped Josh load the trucks. He was let through with "his" shipment after taking note of their yearning for steaks and bourbon. From then on, every week, Josh made sure of sending a large delivery of Big Macs from the McDonalds in Amman across the border to the checkpost. His last visit to Iraq a few months later was to deliver a quart bottle of Jack Daniels to the lieutenant who kept an eye out for his scrap shipments. But that wasn't the end. Upon arriving with the four trucks of brass at 10 p.m. on the Jordanian side, the border was closed. Luckily, the Jordanian official who had warned him on his first trip that he would get killed was still in his office and turned out to be the head of the Mukhabarat - the secret service - in that area. He was so amused to see Josh again that he gave the order to open the crossing and let the trucks through. AFTER THREE trips into Iraq and having managed to save his shipment, Josh hadn't yet made any money. His Iraqi supplier demanded more money than had been agreed upon and he had no choice but to go along, but at least he had established personal contacts all along the shipping route with Iraqis, Americans and Jordanians at a level that no other trader had managed. That route from Iraq, across the border to Zarqa and then to the Aqaba port, held out for 16 months. Hundreds of tons of scrap rolled through every month en route for the Far East while Josh shuttled between Jerusalem and Zarqa, a sole Israeli working and living among Jordanians, mainly of Palestinian origins. "They knew who I was and I don't have any illusion that they liked me or liked Jews or Israelis, but I knew that on a personal level they liked me, we can do business together and we did a lot of business," Josh maintained. "That's the most important thing and we got along well. They were looking out for my kashrut, they would warn me if something had meat in it and I would come to their houses to break the fast on Ramadan. I also fasted together with them." The main problem in the trade remained the shoddy quality of the scrap coming in from Iraq. They just couldn't get the local collectors to make sure the furnaces they were using weren't contaminated with other materials, and the poor quality meant Josh had trouble finding customers or a good price for his metal, and had to spend large sums on his own testing instruments to make sure he wasn't shipping consignments that would be sent back at a disastrous cost. At one stage, he bought a used furnace in Israel, dismantled it and sent it to his contacts in Iraq with strict instructions on how to use it for making high-quality ingots. "We lost track of the furnace very quickly. We know that it was installed first in Sadr City in Baghdad. Later they moved it to Falluja and it got lost there in the fighting. We never heard of it again," Josh said. The furnace wasn't the only shipment going the other way. Family back in the US told him of a young relative serving as an officer in one of the military units in Iraq. The soldiers were complaining of a lack of cool drinks in sweltering Baghdad. "I got hold of a slush machine here in Israel, but before we could send it over, we had to peel and scrape off all the Hebrew labels and stickers. The unit was so happy when it reached them that they took it back to Texas at the end of their tour." BUT NOTHING stays for long in the Middle East, not even a good business. A sudden change of atmosphere after the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin by the IDF in March 2004 convinced Josh that it was time to clear out of Zarqa - where most of his contacts were Palestinian - and carry on the business through intermediaries. The Jordanians themselves were planning to close down the scrap yards there for environmental reasons, but he didn't want to give up what was starting to become a lucrative business. "We had been spending money for two years and got over all the learning curves,"explained Josh, who decided to go back to his original plan and bought land for a new scrap yard, complete with a quality inspection facility, near the port in Aqaba. But the security situation kept intruding on his business. Not long after the new route had been established, a terror group linked to al-Qaida launched a Katyusha missile attack in Aqaba on US Navy ships in the port and at Israeli targets across the border. The Jordanian security forces decided that the Katyushas were brought into the kingdom in scrap metal trucks and closed down the trade. If Josh had any hope that the route would eventually be re-opened in the near future, it was dashed three months later, when a coordinated suicide bombing attack killed over 60 people in three hotels in Amman. Josh had regularly stayed at one of them, the Radisson SAS, and had been warned that it wasn't safe only a few weeks before the attack. That was the end of Josh's Iraqi adventure. "In the end, we didn't make any real profit, we spent so much money and time on setting up the route and contacts and it didn't work long enough, but I don't regret getting into it," he admitted. "I think that I'll be back in Jordan in the future. It's a great country to do business in, also for Israelis. Jordan is the place for the future."