US: Bechtel criticized over school project in Iraq

Baghdad -- The Bechtel Corp. built the Hoover Dam and the English Channel Tunnel, but Iraqi school Principal Yakob Yusef al-Yakobi wonders why it can't keep the new fluorescent lights from falling off his high school's ceilings.

 The gap under his new office door is so big he has nailed a board across the bottom to keep out the stray kittens that had been crawling underneath it for shelter.

The principal and his staff also say that Bechtel's Iraqi subcontractors replaced usable floor tiles and 32 ceiling fans --school property -- and sold them off, leaving behind lower-quality replacements.

"They just wanted to finish their work very quickly," he said. "We trust Bechtel, but it was very bad to give contracts to Iraqi contractors."

President Bush and other U.S. officials tout the repairs to Iraq's schools as a hallmark of an American-led renewal, a symbol of hope for a new generation of Iraqis. But for many in Baghdad, including some U.S. troops involved in the work, Bechtel's school rehabilitation appears slipshod and wasteful.

The job by Bechtel, under a contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development, was enormous -- refurbishing 1,239 schools in three months.

Questions about the performance in Iraq by San Francisco-based Bechtel come as the other major contractor in the country, Halliburton Co., faces allegations it badly overcharged the Pentagon for petroleum deliveries in the country.

Both Bechtel and Halliburton have close ties to recent Republican administrations. Vice President Dick Cheney once ran Halliburton, and a number of former Bechtel executives have served in recent Republican White Houses, including former Secretary of State George Schulz and former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Some Iraqis appreciate the job Bechtel has done. And amid the confusion of Iraq's ongoing transition, the giant company is sometimes unfairly blamed for work at schools repaired by other groups.

The climate is difficult. The vast majority of Iraq's schools would be unusable under even the loosest of American standards. The renovation of Iraqi schools is being done by myriad groups, including the Army and agencies under USAID contract. Those involved admit that there have been duplicated efforts at some schools, while others have been untouched. The groups now meet regularly to "deconflict" their efforts.

But Bechtel, based in San Francisco, has been the center of attention. While mega-projects such as power plants and ports are Bechtel's forte, the intimacy and delicacy of renovating schools, the places children are sent to learn, has been a vexing and emotional experience for both the company and Iraqis.

Bechtel's task from USAID was to provide a "quick-fix" in preparing for a new school year that began Oct. 3. Company officials stress the size of the job and the fact that most Iraqi government or commercial agencies were not functioning when it began.

Responding to the complaints, Bechtel workers said they are in the middle of a planned review of every school and they promise to address all the problems under a one-year warranty.

According to USAID, the school refurbishment project is worth about $50 million, part of more than $1 billion in contracts the government awarded Bechtel in Iraq -- seen by the company as a uniquely high-profile project in the company's 105-year history.

Bechtel workers said they take both the project and the criticism to heart and are working according to professional standards despite adversity.

"The people at Bechtel really care about this one. We've all got kids. We've all been to school. In a country with a lot of hurt, this is meaningful. So, it's a system, it's people who care and it's being done in the middle of chaos, chaos evolving into something more orderly and more Iraqi," said Bechtel's Gregory Huger, a manager in the reconstruction program.

The work matters to the Army, too, which sees improved schools as a way to win Iraqi hearts. The Army is doing its own school construction projects and looking on with concern at Bechtel.

Maj. Linda Scharf, a civil affairs officer, ordered a survey of 20 Bechtel-repaired schools in her area and found dangerous debris left in playgrounds, sloppy paint jobs and broken toilets.

"The work was horrible," she said.

Iraqi Minister of Education Ala'din Alwan blamed many of the problems on the chaos in Iraq when Bechtel began work. He said a recent agreement with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led administration, will ensure that complaints about the schools are addressed and that his government ministry, left out of the initial planning, will set the priorities. But he also said that Bechtel did not coordinate its work with his ministry, while the Army did.

"The ministry of education had either no role or a very small role," said Alwan, who took on his job in September. "We are starting to work on the problems. Now we are starting to take over."

USAID officials defend Bechtel, saying that complaints from the ministry of education have only shown about 2 percent of Bechtel's schools lacking. But ministry officials said that is just an initial sampling of problems. The comments by Army personnel, Iraqi education ministry staff and school principals in a report obtained by Cox Newspapers are often severe.

"The new fans are cheap and burned out immediately upon use. All inspected were already broken," wrote a U.S. soldier in an inspection.

"Lousy paint job. Major clean-up work required. Bathrooms in poor condition," wrote another about a different school.

Much of the criticism focuses on Bechtel's Iraqi subcontractors. "The contractor has demanded the schools managers to hand over the good and broken furniture. The names of the subcontractors are unknown to us because they did not come to our office," wrote an Iraqi school planner.

Missing equipment and furniture was a frequent complaint. Neither the Iraqi ministry of education nor UNICEF, the United Nations child advocacy agency, another organization working on schools, allows subcontractors take old equipment.

Bechtel has its supporters. Some principals were satisfied with the job -- the schools at least have a new coat of paint and water fountains, an air conditioner for the office and some new tile work. As Bechtel notes, many of the complaints were about work that was not in its mission -- long-term jobs like sewage and groundskeeping.

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