Head-high piles of debris, broken stone and twisted rebar almost entomb the ruins of the former Iraqi Intelligence Directorate -- once one of ousted President Saddam Hussein's most fearsome power centers.
The sprawling compound now churns with the steady rumble of heavy construction equipment. Young children from squatter camps scamper barefoot over the rubble.
For Sean O'Sullivan, the wreckage at the intelligence headquarters and dozens of other former government sites in Baghdad is an ugly reminder of the massive amount of work needed to rebuild Iraq.
"You drive around the city and see all these open wounds. It didn't make me feel very good as an American," he said. "So imagine how dispiriting it must be for Iraqis to be seeing that everyday."
A graduate of USC's film school, the 39-year-old O'Sullivan founded Jumpstart International last year to help nudge the battered country back on its feet. The nonprofit clears wreckage from bombed and looted sites, knocks down buildings that can't be saved and leaves empty shells for the new Iraqi government to take over and refurbish.
Since August, Jumpstart has cleared out more than 500 buildings and demolished 200 more. It employs 3,500 workers -- more than 10% of the U.S.-funded local reconstruction workforce.
In their bid to help with Iraq's reconstruction, O'Sullivan and Jumpstart have had to stave off financial crises and bureaucratic glitches and grapple with Iraq's new homeless problem.
Funded by private donations and a grant from the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, Jumpstart offers its services free -- only asking the respective ministries to provide on-site security.
"They've made a huge impact," said a U.S. Embassy official familiar with the group's work. "It saves the ministries literally hundreds of thousands of dollars."
A former Toluca Lake resident, O'Sullivan came to Baghdad as a documentary filmmaker just before the U.S.-led war totopple Hussein. Within a week, he was thrown out by the Iraqi government for unauthorized filming, but he returned after Baghdad fell.
Several weeks of working in the postwar landscape left him wanting to do more than just document the chaos.
O'Sullivan returned to Baghdad last fall after raising $2 million, mainly from friends who, he said, "made a boatload of money with the Internet."
Finding the sites that needed work wasn't hard. He would drive up to bombed or looted buildings, ask who was in charge and approach the fledgling Iraqi ministries. The organization's "very big and important sounding name" -- and the fact that he was offering the service free -- ensured a friendly reception at most ministries, O'Sullivan said.
"I never even talked to the CPA until I'd been here for about four months, and by that time we'd done maybe 30 projects," he said.
When the seed money began to run short, O'Sullivan turned to online fundraising and approached the CPA for support.
An audit of Jumpstart's efforts resulted in what a U.S. official termed "the highest praise" and a $5-million grant. The money came from proceeds for the U.N. "oil-for-food" program turned over to the CPA after the war.
O'Sullivan said he had enough funds to continue working through the fall. Jumpstart is able to work efficiently thanks to low operating costs. The standard rate for a day laborer is about $5 and construction equipment can be rented for about $70 a day.
O'Sullivan had to navigate Iraq's postwar problems, including thousands of homeless families squatting in the ruins of former government buildings.
About 70 families live at the Intelligence Directorate site -- many of the squatters working as day laborers on the Jumpstart project.
"Everybody who lives here has lost everything," said Kareem Abdel Reda, a 46-year-old laborer who has been living in a former locker room near a swimming pool once used by intelligence officers.
Like many squatters here, Abdel Reda used to rent an apartment, but the postwar collapse of the job market left him unable to pay the $100 monthly rent.
His Jumpstart wages barely feed his nine children. He said he can't afford to send them to school. Electricity is stolen from a nearby street light, and some months they resell some of their sugar and oil rations.
Abdel Reda is grateful for the work and the free housing. He's also aware that he and his fellow squatter-laborers are working themselves out of a home. Within a few months, the Intelligence Directorate site should be ready for the next stage of reconstruction.
"For sure we'll have to leave," he said. "What can we do? Our lives are in the hands of God."
In the evenings, the squatter families continue their own rubble-clearing efforts. A steady stream of men mines the carcass of the main intelligence building, hauling off rebar and bricks for resale.
"This is our share of 35 years of oil profits," one said.
For O'Sullivan, the eventual displacement of homeless families is unavoidable.
Jumpstart has started building housing for squatter families on different sites -- using bricks and rebar salvaged from other buildings.
O'Sullivan is planning to leave Iraq in October to return to making documentaries. He said Jumpstart was a solution to a temporary problem.
"When the city starts standing up again and the government starts standing up again, hopefully the need will die," he said.