State watchdog finds no abuse of embassy crew

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The State Department yesterday dismissed claims by Democrats that foreign workers were mistreated when building the U.S. Embassy complex in Iraq.

The department”s internal watchdog said his conclusions were based on random interviews with several workers and an inspection of dining-room facilities, a medical clinic and trailers in which they were housed.

“No interviewee was aware of any worker who had been mistreated,” the inspector general, Howard Krongard, said in a memorandum that accompanied his testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and one of its panels.

But he acknowledged that recruiters in foreign countries may have misled potential workers about the pay and living conditions and said he had told the Justice Department about the situation.

The department”s director of overseas building operations said the embassy in Baghdad would be completed by September as planned and would not run over its $592 million estimated cost.

The 104-acre compound will be the largest embassy in the world and a symbol of U.S. commitment to Iraq. There will be working space for about 1,000 people.

Despite the assurances, Democrats at the hearing charged that the prime contractor, First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting Co., used forced labor to build the embassy and that the State Department was stonewalling Congress.

The committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, called it “full bunker mentality.” He said that for two weeks, he was unable to get the documents and cables he had requested from the State Department.

Some of that material was delivered only yesterday morning in response to a subpoena, he said.

But the committee”s top Republican, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, said the hearing “was based on unproven facts in media reports.” He added, “It is oversight by firing squad.”

The Kuwaiti company did not send an official to testify. But in a statement, it denied that workers had been mistreated and said it was doing a good job against the difficult backdrop of rising violence.

Two former employees of First Kuwaiti, John Owens and Rory J. Mayberry, contended that they had firsthand knowledge that the foreign workers were mistreated.

Mr. Owens, who worked as a general foreman for eight months, said conditions were deplorable, “beyond what even a working man should tolerate.”

Foreign workers were packed in trailers and lacked such basic items as shoes and gloves, Mr. Owens said. Their contract required them to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with some time off on Friday for prayers, he said.

“Many of the workers were verbally and physically abused, intimidated and had their salary docked for reasons such as being five minutes late and sitting down on the job and other crazy stuff,” Mr. Owens said.

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