- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

TAZA, Iraq - In the calmer regions of northern and southern Iraq, electricity, water and other infrastructure projects are moving ahead in between attacks on personnel and convoys.

But in violence-stricken areas, things have ground down to almost a standstill, with monies being redirected toward security and emergency zones such as Fallujah.

Reconstruction is trudging painfully forward in Iraq in what U.S. Institute for Peace analyst A. Heather Coyne described as a “one step forward, one step back, one step sideways” rhythm.

Contrack International Inc., which led a $325 million effort to rebuild Iraq’s roads, bridges and railways, withdrew from its contract last month after a surge in attacks, according to the Pentagon’s Project and Contract Office in Baghdad.

Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, a 45 percent stakeholder in Contrack and the parent company of Baghdad’s mobile-telephone service Iraqna, told the Financial Times that the danger of working in Iraq could shut down the service.

“That really is going to body-slam all these fledgling Iraqi companies, as well as international companies, government and [nongovernmental organizations] who use it to communicate with their employees and vendors,” said one Baghdad-based U.S. security company official.

Baghdad’s governor said violent strikes in the capital were impeding reconstruction in the capital, despite a $60 million U.S. Army funding package.

“The insecurity is largely preventing the completion of these projects,” Ali al-Haidari told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse. He said that out of 63 projects in the Abu Ghraib region, not even five of them had been completed because of attacks on the sites.

Here in the northern area of Kirkuk, Iraqi and U.S. engineers trudge through the thick brown mud as they put the final touches on the first phase of a shiny new turbine and power plant, aiming to have it running by the end of December.

It has been one year since work started on the 325-megawatt plant, record time for this kind of work even without Iraq’s daunting economic and security problems, say engineers from Bechtel, a global construction and project management company that has several contracts in Iraq.

But that is not fast enough for local residents, who complain that they have electricity for only two to 10 hours a day. The complaints reflect a recurring contrast between upbeat official statements and the perceptions of U.S. workers on the ground and ordinary Iraqis.

But a Bechtel Corp. manager at the construction site in Taza, a town outside Kirkuk, told visiting U.S. officials earlier in December that his power plant was a “haven of peace and tranquility.”

But on-site expatriate workers said they lived in constant fear of homemade bombs planted along the single road out of the bare-bones camp. They also said local workers and their families routinely were threatened for working with the Americans.

They said workers at a concrete plant north of the power station had been warned twice not to supply the project with materials. Authorities recently found the body of a local carpenter who had been fatally shot while wearing tags that identified him as a worker at the plant.

Bechtel managers said they have been able to reduce the violence by working with city and town officials and hiring men from the community.

“In May, we were having mortar attacks every three days,” said one site worker. “Bechtel went and talked to the local leaders, and it quieted down a lot.”

From north to south, reconstruction-project managers are discovering the benefits of training and employing Iraqis and working with local leaders — usually tribal — to ensure a level of security. The leaders are sometimes put directly or indirectly on the payroll.

But there remains an almost total reliance on more traditional security measures. There are heavily armed private security guards at every project site, and Western workers are allowed out only on essential business — and even then only with armed escorts.

U.S. officials insist that there is a lot of “good news” in Iraq and emphasize the number of small and large projects countrywide — from refurbishing schools to water-treatment plants.

But the benefits are slow to be felt by the 40 percent of the country’s working-age population that is unemployed or underemployed.

Ambassador Bill Taylor, head of the reconstruction office in Iraq, called for patience.

“This is evolution, not revolution,” he said, during an interview in a plain white trailer at the Bechtel work site.

“Security, security, security are the three major challenges,” he said. “Security and reconstruction go together. You need some level of security to move forward.”

New power plants are only part of the answer.

Iraq needs an estimated 9,000 megawatts of power to meet its needs, but it is limping along on a little less than the estimated 4,000 megawatts it had before the U.S.-led invasion last year. Even Baghdad, the capital, is a city of generators.

“One month ago, we had 20 hours of electricity; now we have 10 to 15 hours a day,” said Taza Mayor Talib Hadi Fattah, who blamed the reduction on sabotage of gas pipelines.

A larger turbine made to order in Germany for the Bechtel plant in Taza has been stuck at the border for months, waiting to be delivered when security conditions improve.

In the southern city of Basra, earth-diggers earmarked for delivery through a successfully completed project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were held up for two weeks because the drivers were too frightened to face the road without armed escorts.

USAID has obligated $4.3 billion in about 9,000 projects across Iraq in both physical infrastructure and starting up democratic institutions.

Workers in Basra are undertaking a $4.9 million renovation of the air terminal, including the air-traffic-control tower, said Erick Bush, who works in construction services for the transportation and communications sector of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ southern district.

“The airport is one of the highest-profile projects we have here, with high likelihood of success: being on schedule, on budget and being fully functional when complete,” Mr. Bush said.

“The time frame for completion on the [navigational aids] and the terminal is July, which would enable commercial and civilian air traffic to begin.”

But even as his statement was released, the country’s largest and most important travel hub, Baghdad International Airport, was without running water for the eighth day.

With hundreds of passengers filing through the airport daily and many forced to spend the night when the road is closed, restroom facilities had become intolerable. Security officials based at the airport were trucking in water for personal hygiene.

Reconstruction workers countrywide, meanwhile, are trapped in fortified compounds.

Dar Warmke, country director for a pro-democracy group called America’s Development Foundation, said a lot of his work to build up civil society in Iraq was accomplished through “remote control,” with few on-site visits.

In sprawling Baghdad, embassy and other U.S. government employees are not allowed to leave the heavily fortified green zone, except for essential business. Iraqis coming to work in the zone often hide their faces until they are well behind the high concrete walls.

U.S. nationals typically live in compounds protected 24 hours a day by armed guards. Travel within the zone, once considered a haven of Western normality, is now regulated by a complicated set of passes that change constantly.

In the most telling sign of security worries, U.S. Embassy employees and other American officials cannot travel on the 5-mile stretch of road between Baghdad International Airport and the green zone. Instead, they are flown in by Black Hawk helicopters that zoom low over the city skyline with gunners at the ready.

“This time last year, we owned the road. Now they own the road,” said a former special- operations member, referring to what are known here as “the bad guys” — insurgents and terrorists bent on derailing progress in Iraq.

Iraqi-American merchant banker Rubar Sandi, who has invested heavily in Iraq, insists that the best way to rebuild the country is through micro-credit loans to small businesses.

“If you can stabilize the neighborhood, you can stabilize the country, because that is how small businesses work — they hire people from their own areas,” he said.

Some Iraqis see a change for the better despite the challenges.

“There is slow success. The economy is improving,” said one 28-year-old engineer who cares for his mother in northern Iraq. “Still, the streets need to be repaired; the water system, the sewer system need to be repaired.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide