Army Corps of Engineers to Help Rebuilding and Cleanup in Kuwait : Reconstruction: It has already been tabbed to aid in restoring damaged water, power and transportation systems after the Iraqis leave.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the allied coalition prevails, and the Iraqi army ultimately leaves Kuwait, a stampede of Westerners will move in to assist in a cleanup and reconstruction so thorough and costly that it likely will draw comparisons to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II.

A key player in the initial stages of the cleanup will be the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a venerable and often controversial agency that is drawn to war and disaster as moths are to light.

From its roots in the American Revolution, the corps has gradually evolved into the U.S. government's primary construction arm at home and abroad. It's now the world's largest engineering and construction concern.

Kuwait's government-in-exile, operating in Saudi Arabia, has selected the corps to help restore the nation's damaged water, power and transportation systems. The contract, valued at $45 million and expected to last 90 days, is a key part of an emergency effort designed to restore postwar Kuwait to working order.

That the corps was asked to play this role seems natural to those familiar with the behemoth agency, its impressive engineering expertise and political ties. Its public works projects dot the nation and have made the agency a congressional favorite.

"It surprises me not at all," said Forest G. Hill, a retired economic historian at the University of Texas. "They have the history, the expertise and the political ins to do this kind of a job," he said.

"This job is right down our alley," agreed Brig. Gen. Eugene S. Witherspoon, who heads the corps' operations in the Middle East and Africa.

The corps is acting as a project supervisor, awarding the actual work to some of the 100-plus bidders who want a piece of the cleanup and repair activities. Raytheon Co.--manufacturer of the Patriot missile--has already received a $5.7-million contract to help rebuild Kuwait's airport.

From the start, controversy has dogged the corps' effort. So hasty was the bidding process this week that a British trade official complained that the corps had given "absurdly short" application deadlines to British companies.

"They had the same deadlines as any other companies," replied Witherspoon, who said Kuwaiti officials in Saudi Arabia ordered an unexplained bidding speedup.

Though the corps' contract in Kuwait lasts just three months, officials say that the agency may eventually be hired to help supervise the long-term reconstruction of Kuwait.

"There has been some talk of that, but nothing is certain at all," said agency spokesman Scott Saunders. The entire reconstruction effort is expected to last as long as five years and cost $40 billion or more.

The corps has plenty of critics, particularly among environmentalists who have regularly challenged its domestic projects in recent decades. There also has been longstanding tension between the agency and the nation's construction companies and civil engineers, who resent competition from a government agency.

"It's a giant that looks around for work to do," said a Sacramento-area civil engineer who asked not to be identified. "They've created a bureaucracy, and they have to keep it fed."

The corps' defenders argue that the agency usually does only the planning and oversight of projects, leaving the actual building to private subcontractors.

Sometimes called the greatest diggers on Earth, the corps is a hybrid run by the military but staffed largely by civilians. It has a $12-billion annual budget and more than 4,000 projects under construction, Saunders said.

The corps has an illustrious history that began during the American Revolution, when Army engineers shoveled dirt in defense of Bunker Hill. Its authority gradually expanded over the next two centuries to include flood control and maintenance of the nation's waterways and harbors.

The corps played a lead role in building the transportation systems that opened up the American West. The U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Pentagon are also among its building trophies.

With the end of World War II, the corps moved aggressively overseas, working construction projects throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It built air bases for Israel and cities for Saudi Arabia.

The corps is usually around after disaster strikes. The agency was called in to clean up the Columbia River after Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980 and to assess the damage after the Bay Area earthquake in 1989.

That's a major reason why the Kuwaiti government picked the corps to aid in its rebuilding effort, according to agency spokeswoman Joan Kibler. "The corps has great experience in handling civil disasters," she said.

Its extensive Middle Eastern experience also helped. The agency has been particularly active in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and it was helping Kuwait build air force training facilities at the time of Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion.

"Foreign countries sometimes have trouble dealing directly with American companies," said Lloyd Duscha, who recently retired as the corps' top civilian engineer. "Some would prefer to have the government as an intermediary."

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