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Baghdad Safe Area Is Becoming Less So

Recent attacks on the fortified Green Zone housing coalition headquarters make foreign residents nervous. Bechtel reports the death of an electrician.

March 24, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A recent spate of attacks -- including a previously undisclosed mortar strike that killed a Bechtel Corp. subcontractor last Thursday -- has pierced the sense of security inside the U.S.-led coalition's well-protected Green Zone.

The Iraqi construction worker, who was working at the San Francisco-based engineering giant's Baghdad compound when insurgents launched a daytime attack last week, is believed to be the first person killed in a shelling of the Green Zone since last fall. In October, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel died in a rocket attack against the area's Rashid Hotel, where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was staying.

On Sunday, a U.S. soldier was wounded in a daytime mortar attack that struck close to the Baghdad Convention Center, where coalition officials hold media briefings and many business and aid groups are based.

A week before that, another U.S. soldier was seriously wounded inside the Green Zone -- an unknown assailant cut his throat and then escaped.

"When you put it all together, it's a little startling," said one coalition official who lives inside the Green Zone and did not want to be identified. "In the past, people would just joke about the attacks because they never hit anything."

Adding to the anxiety, military officials have warned Green Zone dwellers in recent days about a wild dog and a rabid monkey -- which presumably escaped from the nearby zoo -- that have bitten several people, one area resident said.

The death of the Bechtel subcontractor was a rarity.

"On March 18, at approximately 12:30 in the morning, one projectile randomly landed inside the Green Zone and exploded near one of our subcontractor employees, who was fatally wounded," Cynthia Huger, a Bechtel spokeswoman in Baghdad, said Tuesday.

Though rocket and mortar assaults on the compound have become fairly common, they seldom cause damage or injure anyone. In most cases, the attacks are followed by a brief blare of air sirens and then people resume their activities.

The absence of publicity or awareness about last week's attack also was unusual. Several coalition officials, including some who work with Bechtel, said they had not even heard about the death. Spokesmen for the U.S. military, which tracks insurgency attacks, and the Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversees the occupation, also said they were unaware of the incident.

"We don't have any information about it," military spokesman Justin McQue said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees some of the Bechtel contract work, referred inquiries to the company.

Huger would not comment on whether the company formally had reported the incident to military or coalition officials. She said the company had a policy of not talking publicly about security issues.

She declined to identify the subcontractor or his immediate employer, but she described him as an unmarried Iraqi living with his mother and siblings. According to people familiar with the incident, the man was an electrician working on an expansion of Bechtel's base inside the Green Zone.

The company and its partners have been awarded contracts valued at nearly $3 billion for reconstruction work in Iraq.

The attack is sure to heighten anxiety among foreign businesses and private contractors who are mulling whether to participate in Iraq's reconstruction. On Monday, two Finnish technology executives were shot to death in west Baghdad on their way to a meeting with government officials.

"The security problems are causing concern," said Sabah Khesbak, vice president of the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Baghdad. He said about five foreign companies had pulled out of a trade expo planned for next month in the capital after the venue was hit this weekend by a mortar shell, presumably an errant projectile intended for the Green Zone.

But he noted that nearly 400 companies would still participate. "A bomb or two will not stop the progress of the country," he said.

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