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US: Security Issues Delay Rebuilding

Thefts Plague U.S. Contractors' Efforts in Iraq

by Jackie SpinnerThe Washington Post
June 20th, 2003

To get the lights back on and the air conditioning humming again in Iraq, U.S. construction firm Bechtel National Inc. needed a giant tool called a crimper to repair and reconnect high-voltage power lines. But three days after the San Francisco-based company shipped in an 80-pound crimper last month, the $15,000 tool disappeared, stolen in a ripple of looting that has become a major challenge for aid workers and private contractors operating in Iraq.

The rebuilding effort also has been hampered by security concerns, according to government and contractor reports from the field. On Monday, as the port of Umm Qasr opened again to commercial traffic, the U.S. Agency for International Development issued a report saying security there remains "a major problem" and "has become even more problematic" in recent weeks.

Last week, men armed with pistols and grenades carried away bags of flour from a humanitarian ship docked at the docks, the agency said, while three days ago a looter was electrocuted trying to make off with part of the recently repaired power grid.

Contractors said similar security problems are evident around the county, raising unease about personal safety and, in some cases, creating delays at a time when the U.S. government is anxious to show signs of progress.

Ross W. Wherry, USAID's senior reconstruction adviser for Asia and the Near East, said the concerns have increased security costs "substantially."

"I begrudge that because I believe the money spent on security could be better spent providing services," he added.

The security conditions in Iraq are similar to the dangers aid workers and contractors have faced in a number of other war-torn countries, including Afghanistan and Bosnia, Wherry said. "The risk is less that an aid worker will be caught in a firefight but rather that there might be an armed robbery, a nasty crowd, a vehicle accident or personal assault.

"They have to get by on their common sense, knowledge of local habits and culture, and ability to collect and evaluate information before they travel into a project area -- plus a good radio, two spare tires and a first-aid kit."

Contractors traveling with military escorts said they welcome having the protection, which also saves them from hiring private security, though it inevitably slows them down.

Reid Maness, a spokesman for RTI International, a North Carolina firm contracted to build support for local governance in Iraq, said the company has been able to start neighborhood council meetings in more than 40 locations in Baghdad in spite of the security difficulties and "so far without incident."

But, Maness said, the firm takes "explicit precautions," always traveling with at least two vehicles and a military escort.

Confidential internal reports from private firms working in Iraq point to specific cases of what appears to be organized looting and smuggling operations.

According to one report, more than 500 tons of copper, aluminum and steel stolen from the electrical transmission towers are being sold daily across the Iranian border. "Interrupting these very organized operations [is] a personal security threat," the report said, adding that some of the looting appears "at least partially, intended to disrupt restoration of the power system."

Abt Associates, a Massachusetts firm contracted by USAID to rebuild Iraq's health system, said it will not bring in replacement medical equipment such as kidney dialysis machines until the situation is more secure.

"The security issue is the overwhelming issue," said Stephen A. Horblitt, spokesman for D.C.-based Creative Associates International Inc., which has the USAID contract to rebuild Iraq's school system.

For Bechtel, which has the main contract to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, including the Umm Qasr port, the problems have been particularly acute.

In April, when the company first set out to assess the damage to Iraq's transmission towers on the southeastern leg of a line from Qurnah to Al Kut, it found 13 towers knocked down by looters in search of cooper, aluminum and steel. A month later, it discovered 52 more towers had been destroyed.

"When you find a substation that doesn't need a lot of attention, you go back the next day, and it's looted, it's destroyed, it's trashed," said Bechtel spokesman Howard N. Menaker. "Security of the infrastructure remains a very serious problem."

In spite of the conditions, workers are making progress, according to USAID and the contractors.

Arthur Keys, president and chief executive of D.C.-based International Relief Development Inc., which is working to clean the sewage and garbage in Baghdad under a USAID grant, said his group hasn't been affected by the same security issues because it is only working in areas that have not had a security incident within 24 hours -- a requirement imposed by the U.S. military.

"We find the security conditions in the neighborhoods not to be an issue," he said.

Creative Associates and Bechtel have identified 18 schools in Al Basrah for reconstruction and refurbishment. And contractor Skylink Air and Logistic Support Inc. is mobilizing the Iraqi labor force to get water and electricity up and running at the Baghdad International Airport.

"We've only been there for a month," Wherry said. "We can't claim success by any means, but there's enough stability that we can then begin to look at what's happening in the country and how we can begin to make Iraqis come back to life that [is] a little more livable."
Meanwhile, Bechtel has replaced its stolen crimper with a much larger model -- one that should be more difficult to cart off.
 



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