Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Many private contractors in Iraq, expecting a sharp rise in the number of attacks in the countdown to June 30, are planning to leave the country before the power transfer and have not set a date for their return.

Companies with workers in remote camps with critical projects or those nearing completion are making contingency plans to evacuate employees by vehicle or — in rare cases — aircraft.

They also are trucking in dry goods, prepared meals, water, flashlights, batteries and other emergency supplies, said a private security agency’s site manager.

The Coalition Provisional Authority has advised every private contractor to pack a bag with clothes, a passport, money, water and food, said the manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Security analysts also are warning of strikes against Iraq’s vulnerable oil and electric sectors as terrorists try to disrupt the economy.

A number of fuel tankers have been stolen in southern Iraq, raising fears that terrorists plan to use the vehicles as giant bombs. A retired special forces operative with a demolitions background said the tankers could be transformed into bombs big enough to destroy a hotel or other large building.

“A tanker-size load of jet fuel would be the equivalent of hundreds of pounds of commercial explosives. Or they could drain the truck and fill it with explosives, then it would be a devastating weapon,” the operative said.

“Something that big could carry tons of explosives, and the vortex from that blast would drop a whole hotel,” he said.

Terrorists have been targeting hotels with car bombs and mortar fire. They also have struck at the oil infrastructure in an attempt to derail the county’s economic mainstay.

The British-based AKE security company has advised its clients that the insurgents are well aware of the vulnerability of the oil pipelines and their vital role in Iraq’s economic recovery.

AKE said it had received information “that payments are being offered to individuals to plant explosive devices near pipelines.”

Security specialists in Iraq say at least three fuel trucks have gone missing in the past two weeks. AKE said a Northern Oil Co. tanker was stolen on June 14 or 15 from the southern Iraq town of Bayji, perhaps from a refinery.

“It is highly likely, given the number of attacks on energy-related facilities in recent days, that the vehicle could be used as a potentially massive vehicle-borne suicide bomb,” the report said.

A contractor working for a U.S. company based in southern Iraq said two other fuel tanker trucks had been hijacked in an ambush despite attempts to fight off the attackers.

U.S. administration officials and security specialists have warned of increased violence as the day for transferring authority to Iraqis approaches. Some Iraqis fear the attacks will continue even after June 30.

“Private contractors believe it’s going to be chaotic, that there is going to be more violence, and a small number feel there may be a total breakdown and outright civil war,” said the U.S. contractor based in southern Iraq.

“Most contractors are making plans to leave the country as a preventative measure between June 27 and 28, plan to stay gone about a week, then playing it by ear after that.”

Many plan to join military convoys and travel to Kuwait. Others are flying from Baghdad to Jordan and on to Dubai, and some based in northern Iraq are going into Turkey. Some U.S. private contractors based in Nasariyah in southern Iraq are expected to seek cover in the U.S.-run Tallil air base.

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