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U.S. Engineers Working Under the Gun in Iraq

Sniper fire and looting are part of the risks for Bechtel employees, whose tasks include reopening a port, restoring a sewage facility and repairing 1,200 schools.

October 26, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Tom Rodenfels looks a little silly, wearing a combat helmet and body armor in the middle of a decrepit school courtyard. He's surrounded by a dozen Iraqi laborers, none of them clad in much more than coveralls.

He seems less ridiculous when the shooting starts.

The gunfire is coming from somewhere beyond a trash-strewn field, with at least three people firing. They might be guests at a wedding or mourners at a funeral or guerrillas shooting at the U.S. Army. Whoever it is, they're close.

Rodenfels' hired guards, two British ex-soldiers sporting MP5 machine guns, take up positions at the edge of the construction site. But the Bechtel Group engineer barely notices. "Just another day at the office," he says.

If you're hired to rebuild Iraq, you can't let gunfire stop you -- even if you're the target. You're not supposed to worry about being stoned by the locals or having your work looted, sometimes while you're still doing it. (One Bechtel-rebuilt school was even looted by its teachers.)

Then there are the accusations that your expenses are too high, that Iraqis could do your work cheaper and better, that you're too slow or that your company got this job only because of its close ties to the White House.

So it goes for the engineers of Bechtel, a San Francisco company accustomed to tackling enormous projects, but nothing quite like this.

On April 17, barely a week after Baghdad fell, the State Department awarded Bechtel a $680-million contract to assess Iraq's infrastructure and provide emergency repairs. Among the firm's tasks: Reopen the country's sole deep-water port, which was clogged with wrecks and silt; keep the rickety power grid from complete collapse; improve the water supply to prevent disease outbreaks; rewire the telephone exchanges that the Americans had bombed; and fix 1,200 schools.

Never before has an American company been charged with doing so much, so fast, so soon after a war.

"Bechtel took on tasks that normally would be handled by government agencies and international nonprofit organizations," says Bathsheba Crocker, a reconstruction expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But the Bush administration thought it would work better this way."

Whether this indeed is the best way to rebuild Iraq is a question that won't be resolved until the country's economic and political fates become clear. But the corporate approach will dominate for the foreseeable future. This month Bechtel was awarded a second contract, worth $350 million, for additional water and power work.

The big prize is in the $87-billion war spending bill that the House and Senate recently approved. It devotes more than $10 billion to Iraq's physical reconstruction. The State Department already is soliciting proposals from corporations for more power and sewage work. Bids on this contract, which is valued at $1.5 billion, are due Friday.

"Bechtel's certainly ready to do more work if that opportunity presents itself," spokesman Francis Canavan says.

Despite the complaints and criticism, the rebuilding continues. If the engineers in the field are feeling any qualms, they do not voice them.

"Let's talk about how many lives we touch: 1 million schoolkids," Rodenfels says.

The school where the gunfire is reverberating is called Asmara. It resembles the 141 others that Rodenfels is in charge of repairing. The tile on the floor is broken, the walls caked with dust and smeared with graffiti, the toilets open pits. "Nothing's been done here since 1982, not since we started fighting Iran and all our money went into armaments," says Jack Akiki, Rodenfels' Iraqi construction manager.

Bechtel has subcontracted Asmara and dozens of other schools to Akiki's Baghdad company, Yaz Group. At Asmara alone, Yaz has hired 45 local laborers. Because their children go to class here, the hope is that the workers will feel responsible for the school, even after the work is done.

Every day is a tentative confrontation between occupier and occupied. Rodenfels wants to know why the wall shielding the bathroom hasn't been painted. Akiki points to the word "Allah" inscribed across it. "They're afraid," he says.

That one, at least, is easy. "Paint over it and tell them to rewrite it," Rodenfels says.

Sobering Beginning

Bechtel is the largest U.S. construction and engineering company, with a heritage that stretches over a century of dams, pipelines, shipbuilding, subway systems, bridges, nuclear power plants, refineries and airports all over the world.

"If I wanted the North Pole and the South Pole to change places, I'd hire Bechtel," says Pete Gibson, an Army Corps of Engineers operations chief who spent several months in Iraq.

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