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In Iraq, Bechtel works to upgrade key port

UMM QASR, Iraq—The port of Umm Qasr—Iraq's sole gateway to the Persian Gulf—lay eerily quiet in mid-June. Large cranes that should have been lifting containers from arriving ships were idle. A blue-domed mosque for dockworkers was empty. A grain elevator and storage silos were barren and broken.

The waters of the narrow channel are so full of sludge, silt, sunken boats and unexploded bombs from the Iran-Iraq war that large boats can't dock there.

"This port hasn't been dredged in 12 years," Art Fletcher, a subcontractor to Bechtel Corp., which is in charge of upgrading the port, said as he looked at a multicolored chart showing water depths. "The water coming from the river is dirty and constantly bringing silt. It's in bad shape."

Upgrading Umm Qasr—just 10 miles west of the Kuwaiti border—is crucial to reviving the Iraqi economy, since it will sharply lower the cost of bringing goods in and out of the country, including humanitarian aid.

Bechtel, a San Francisco-based company that operates all over the world, raced into action here after winning a controversial $680 million emergency contract from the U.S. government to repair critical pieces of Iraq's infrastructure. Bechtel's close ties to officials in the Bush administration raised eyebrows when the contract was announced. Since then, Bechtel has hired subcontractors from the United States, Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. of Oakbrook, Ill., which employs Fletcher, is sucking silt out of the channel. About 1.7 million cubic yards of silt have been dredged so far, with about 7.7 million cubic yards to go.

The port officially opened to traffic June 16, although it will be weeks before large vessels can dock easily.

Like everything else in Iraq, progress is uneven and unpredictable. The looting that swept the country after the war continues, and U.S. officials now think it's due to former Baath Party officials and criminal gangs sabotaging American efforts to rebuild the country. A $30,000 tide gauge was one of the main pieces of equipment stolen from the docks.

"We're seeing sabotage," said Bob Sinnott, Bechtel's project manager at Umm Qasr. "At the grain facility, people are taking key components and cutting wires, power transformers and cables. These guys know what they are doing, and it's very frustrating. It's like they're taking all of the spark plugs out of a car. While we're sleeping, people are going to the grain facility and looting it. We're making progress, but we're carrying an extra burden."

Bechtel is low-key about its presence. At the port, no sign announces that Bechtel is there. Company vehicles are unmarked. Numerous Iraqis who live in the area said they'd heard rumors that a big American company was working at the port, but no one interviewed could name Bechtel.

The company prides itself on being able to build anything anywhere, and it moves fast. Baghdad fell to coalition forces April 9. The U.S. Agency for International Development contract was signed April 17. Teams arrived at the port April 21, with engineers driving from Kuwait City on day trips to do assessments. By May 21, the company had set up a fully functional and self-contained "camp."

Two dozen Bechtel employees live and work in white air-conditioned double-wide trailers that serve as sleeping quarters, offices and a canteen with snacks and catered meals.

The camp is surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire. Three security guards monitor it at all time, and every employee has a two-way radio.

The company has set up a similar facility in Baghdad—on the grounds of the palace of Saddam Hussein's son Odai—even though the city has many hotels that cater to Westerners.

Bechtel has introduced operating standards that, while common in the West, are new to Iraq. For example, it wants contractors to provide employees with hard hats, goggles and boots, as well as a safety plan. And there's no real insurance market in Iraq, so many firms are struggling to find a way to insure their employees and equipment.

"Everything is new for us. Insurance, safety—we don't have such standards in Iraq," said Kamil al Gailani, the owner of a small engineering firm in Baghdad. Al Gailani was one of nearly 500 businessmen who attended a recent Bechtel conference for potential subcontractors at Baghdad's convention center. "But this is the new world order, whether we like it or not."

Bechtel is offering jobs in a moribund economy and there are plenty of potential takers. "Iraqis who worked with Bechtel in the 1970s are coming up to us with their old Bechtel ID cards and asking for work," said Cliff Mumm, the company's top officer in Iraq.

Rasheed Abdul Hamid Ahmed, an electrical engineer, was one of the first Iraqis hired at the port. He hasn't been paid yet and says he isn't sure what his salary will be.

"The Americans helped us get rid of Saddam Hussein, and now they are helping us rebuild our country," said Ahmed, who wore a white Bechtel construction hat with his name scrawled on it as he walked around the port. "We should cooperate with them."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PORT

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030624 USIRAQ PORT