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Foreign workers perform basic tasks at U.S. bases in Persian Gulf

NEAR THE IRAQ BORDER—Men from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other south Asian countries clean toilets, run the mess tent, fill sandbags and help with other basic operations at U.S. installations around the Persian Gulf.

Their work saves the military from devoting personnel to mundane tasks. But it also requires devoting military personnel to escort and watch the foreign workers.

Some in the military worry that these men—only men are hired—may be desperate enough to take bribes from people who oppose the U.S.-led fight in Iraq or, in their worse thoughts, work with the al-Qaida terrorist group. As a result, their every word and action is under scrutiny.

"My people is very happy. Everybody is happy," said Tahir Mehmood, a Pakistani man who oversees a mess hall at an air base that the military has asked not be precisely described in news accounts. He said his men worked 12-hour shifts. He was then led away by a military official before saying anything else.

On a recent afternoon, a security officer tagged along and watched a middle-aged worker empty trash containers. In the mess hall, the workers often are paired with military personnel.

"You never know," said Master Sgt. Willie Johnson, of Waldorf, Md. "We heard one guy had a plan to poison the food on base."

Maj. David Andino-Aquino, the commander of services, said he instructed troops to be careful but respectful with the foreign workers, known in military jargon as "third country nationals," or "TCNs."

Their presence is awkward during missile alerts, when people scramble for cover. Andino-Aquino said his staff never had thrown a TCN out of a protective bunker. However, base policy does not mandate such courtesy.

On Saturday, after several hours of repeated missile alerts, relations grew tense in some places. "TCNs got kicked out of bunkers because they ran out of room," said Master Sgt. Patrick Wilson, who supervises force protection on base. "The escorts look for a bunker that is more empty. If by the second bunker it is not, (the TCNs) are out of luck."

While the men could go on their own in search of a roomier bunker, they "are programmed to follow—they don't go anywhere without an escort," Wilson said.

After Saturday's attacks, the number of TCNs on base dropped considerably, from 150 to about 30. The workers who were deemed essential to the base were issued gas masks, Wilson said.

They still don't have the protective clothes the Americans wear to ward off chemical weapons, but Wilson said that was being worked on. "Maybe at least we can give them the discarded ones," he said.

TCNs are employed by local companies contracted by the government of the country where the military set up its temporary posts and bases. A low-skilled worker, such as one assigned to clean toilets, makes the equivalent of $90 to $200 a month.

Once cleared to work by the local government, the workers ride in vans to the base. Some live in tents not far from the gates; others have homes in the area.

When they arrive for their shifts, they get a pat-down. The van they ride in on is searched. They are not allowed to bring weapons, sharp objects or cell phones.

Senior Airman William Smith, 22, deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, works the searches. So far, the most unusual item he has found is green leaves that resembled tobacco.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.