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Violence Slows Progress of Iraq's Reconstruction

April 23, 2004|David Streitfeld and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The escalation of violence in Iraq this month is curtailing the pace of U.S. government-financed reconstruction, but both contractors and U.S. officials maintained Thursday that the disruption so far has been relatively minor.

Tom Wheelock, director of infrastructure for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said at a news briefing here that 90% of all projects were moving forward.

Privately, however, some contractors say the situation is far from normal.

"People just aren't moving now," an official at one major contractor said on condition he not be identified. "We can't get out in the field."

Another contractor, the German engineering firm Siemens, has largely suspended operations in Iraq, Electricity Minister Ayham Samarei told the Associated Press.

Siemens' most crucial task was repairing the generators at the Doura power plant in southern Baghdad. The two turbines, whose 320 megawatts of capacity would go a long way toward solving the capital's rolling power blackouts, have been in disrepair since before the war.

They were expected to be operational by June, and might still be. A Siemens spokeswoman in New York said the project was "moving forward" but declined to say who was doing the work.

Even some of the optimistic contractors said that if the insurgency continues or worsens, all bets are off. If foreign business, security and aid workers continue to be kidnapped or killed, contractors could conceivably pull out in droves. And no matter what, the additional security required in Iraq these days is coming out of the reconstruction budget. That means fewer and smaller projects for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

For security purposes as well as to keep a low profile, U.S. contractors have brought relatively few Americans to Iraq. Instead, they depend heavily on local subcontractors to do the work, whether it's unclogging a sewage canal, rewiring a telephone exchange or repairing a steam turbine.

With Americans confined to their hotels or camps for safety reasons, it's impossible to verify that projects are continuing. Sometimes the lawless situation discourages the Iraqi employees from coming to work. Sometimes conditions make it impossible.

"We've had trouble getting Iraqi citizens who are working for us to show up," said Jack Herrmann, a spokesman for Washington Group International, a Boise, Idaho, company that holds a contract to repair electrical infrastructure. "They've either been intimidated or had trouble getting through tight security."

Between April 9 and April 12 -- four days of high tension that covered the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad and a major religious holiday -- projects ground to a halt across Iraq.

"Nothing got done," said USAID's Wheelock.

He said he could not be specific about the work that has resumed, and would not respond to reports that much of the heavy equipment needed for reconstruction projects is stranded in other countries because of insurgents' increasing control of Iraq's roads.

The highway from Jordan, a major supply route, has been closed by fighting in Fallouja. Insurgents also have detonated bridges on roads leading from Iraq's southern ports to Baghdad. The military has been forced to beef up security on its convoys and alter their transit routes. It now flies in many of its supplies.

Bechtel Group, which has $1.8 billion in infrastructure contracts, said in a briefing memorandum Thursday that "everything in Iraq has been affected by the security situation; our work is not immune. For instance, an overriding issue for us is whether or not we or our subcontractors can access specific sites when we want. Sometimes we can't."

Earlier this week, Bechtel denied reports that half its staff -- about 150 people -- had been evacuated to Jordan and Kuwait.

The San Francisco company is having to rejigger timetables when suppliers cannot deliver equipment on schedule. "We anticipated a much more permissive environment in which to do our work," said a Bechtel spokesman.

Still, the company said "work is continuing" at "nearly every one" of its 50 sites.

Furthermore, the company said it expected to meet this summer's goal of producing 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Having supplies of electricity in the sweltering Iraqi summer is considered essential to ward off a replay of the rioting that occurred over the power supply in Basra last August.

General Electric Co., one of Bechtel's subcontractors, acknowledged "delays at some projects because of security measures" but said it is not pulling out of the country.

At one power plant, GE had been working with Aliso Viejo-based Fluor Corp. A Fluor spokesman said the project was proceeding.

There are about 150 Fluor employees in Iraq, most of them in and around Baghdad.

"The picture that comes through from much of the media coverage is that the entire country is in turmoil," said Fluor spokesman Jerry Holloway. "But some of our projects have not been impacted at all."

Streitfeld reported from San Francisco and Riccardi from Baghdad.

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