U.S. Engineers Working Under the Gun in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Tom Rodenfels looks a little silly, wearing a combat helmet and body armor in the middle of a decrepit school courtyard. He’s surrounded by a dozen Iraqi laborers, none of them clad in much more than coveralls.

He seems less ridiculous when the shooting starts.

The gunfire is coming from somewhere beyond a trash-strewn field, with at least three people firing. They might be guests at a wedding or mourners at a funeral or guerrillas shooting at the U.S. Army. Whoever it is, they’re close.

Rodenfels’ hired guards, two British ex-soldiers sporting MP5 machine guns, take up positions at the edge of the construction site. But the Bechtel Group engineer barely notices. “Just another day at the office,” he says.

If you’re hired to rebuild Iraq, you can’t let gunfire stop you -- even if you’re the target. You’re not supposed to worry about being stoned by the locals or having your work looted, sometimes while you’re still doing it. (One Bechtel-rebuilt school was even looted by its teachers.)

Then there are the accusations that your expenses are too high, that Iraqis could do your work cheaper and better, that you’re too slow or that your company got this job only because of its close ties to the White House.


So it goes for the engineers of Bechtel, a San Francisco company accustomed to tackling enormous projects, but nothing quite like this.

On April 17, barely a week after Baghdad fell, the State Department awarded Bechtel a $680-million contract to assess Iraq’s infrastructure and provide emergency repairs. Among the firm’s tasks: Reopen the country’s sole deep-water port, which was clogged with wrecks and silt; keep the rickety power grid from complete collapse; improve the water supply to prevent disease outbreaks; rewire the telephone exchanges that the Americans had bombed; and fix 1,200 schools.

Never before has an American company been charged with doing so much, so fast, so soon after a war.

“Bechtel took on tasks that normally would be handled by government agencies and international nonprofit organizations,” says Bathsheba Crocker, a reconstruction expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the Bush administration thought it would work better this way.”

Whether this indeed is the best way to rebuild Iraq is a question that won’t be resolved until the country’s economic and political fates become clear. But the corporate approach will dominate for the foreseeable future. This month Bechtel was awarded a second contract, worth $350 million, for additional water and power work.

The big prize is in the $87-billion war spending bill that the House and Senate recently approved. It devotes more than $10 billion to Iraq’s physical reconstruction. The State Department already is soliciting proposals from corporations for more power and sewage work. Bids on this contract, which is valued at $1.5 billion, are due Friday.

“Bechtel’s certainly ready to do more work if that opportunity presents itself,” spokesman Francis Canavan says.

Despite the complaints and criticism, the rebuilding continues. If the engineers in the field are feeling any qualms, they do not voice them.

“Let’s talk about how many lives we touch: 1 million schoolkids,” Rodenfels says.

The school where the gunfire is reverberating is called Asmara. It resembles the 141 others that Rodenfels is in charge of repairing. The tile on the floor is broken, the walls caked with dust and smeared with graffiti, the toilets open pits. “Nothing’s been done here since 1982, not since we started fighting Iran and all our money went into armaments,” says Jack Akiki, Rodenfels’ Iraqi construction manager.

Bechtel has subcontracted Asmara and dozens of other schools to Akiki’s Baghdad company, Yaz Group. At Asmara alone, Yaz has hired 45 local laborers. Because their children go to class here, the hope is that the workers will feel responsible for the school, even after the work is done.

Every day is a tentative confrontation between occupier and occupied. Rodenfels wants to know why the wall shielding the bathroom hasn’t been painted. Akiki points to the word “Allah” inscribed across it. “They’re afraid,” he says.

That one, at least, is easy. “Paint over it and tell them to rewrite it,” Rodenfels says.

Sobering Beginning

Bechtel is the largest U.S. construction and engineering company, with a heritage that stretches over a century of dams, pipelines, shipbuilding, subway systems, bridges, nuclear power plants, refineries and airports all over the world.

“If I wanted the North Pole and the South Pole to change places, I’d hire Bechtel,” says Pete Gibson, an Army Corps of Engineers operations chief who spent several months in Iraq.

But Iraq has never been one of Bechtel’s success stories. The company first came here in the late 1950s, when it planned to build a pipeline from the northern city of Kirkuk all the way to Paris. George Cooley, a Bechtel executive who had survived three years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, was in Baghdad on July 14, 1958, when there was a military coup. Cooley was seized by a mob outside his hotel, beaten, killed and dismembered. Despite efforts by both the State Department and the CIA, his body was never recovered. The pipeline was never built.

In the early 1980s, Bechtel proposed building another pipeline from Iraq, this time to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Donald H. Rumsfeld, then President Reagan’s Mideast envoy, discussed the project with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who wanted assurances that Israel would not attack the pipeline. That pipeline wasn’t built either, but it has been cited frequently by Bechtel critics as evidence of both the company’s close ties to U.S. government officials and its willingness to do business with unsavory leaders such as Hussein.

This time the work is less the sort of engineering marvel that Bechtel prizes and more of an unprecedented logistical challenge. Hundreds of sites had to be visited and assessed, priorities established, subcontractors hired, supplies ferried in -- all on a tight deadline under a hot spotlight.

From the beginning, things didn’t go according to plan. The creation of a prosperous Iraq was supposed to happen in a “permissive” environment, which meant engineers would have the ability to move about freely. Instead, Bechtel and other government contractors are increasingly constrained.

Two civilian employees of Kellogg Brown & Root Inc., a division of Halliburton Co., the Houston-based oil field services company, have been killed since the beginning of August. Both were delivering mail to U.S. forces, part of KBR’s duties in Iraq.

And Saturday, a three-car convoy reportedly belonging to European Landmine Solutions was attacked near Fallouja, killing three people. The firm, a British contractor specializing in clearing unexploded ordnance, has worked for numerous entities in Iraq. It was the deadliest attack on contractors in postwar Iraq.

“We’re engineers. We probably don’t have the good sense to know when to be scared,” says Cliff Mumm, Bechtel’s top executive in Iraq.

In the southern city of Basra, Bechtel engineers took a wrong turn into an angry crowd during the August fuel riots. A member of the security team was injured by a concrete block that came through the windshield, and an engineer was cut on the face by flying glass.

“The Iraqis are good rock throwers,” says Mumm, a 29-year Bechtel veteran whose official title is program director. He estimates that workers at schools were greeted with stones “maybe 50 times.” Sometimes it’s suspicious neighbors who believe Bechtel is there to take something away, sometimes it’s anti-Americanism, sometimes it’s mere hooliganism.

About an hour’s drive south of Basra, nearly on the Kuwaiti border, is the port of Umm al Qasr. Nestled inside is a tiny Bechtel camp, a cluster of prefabricated buildings ringed by a tall wire fence. Anytime a Bechtel employee wants to venture out into the port itself, he must be accompanied by gun-toting security.

Even though the work at the port is complete, with only 18 Bechtel employees still stationed there, the number of security personnel has been boosted from three to 10. A resupply boat was coming in from Bahrain in August when it was boarded by pirates; those on board were robbed of all valuables, including their wedding rings. A small, swift cruiser named the Condor now waits at the dock, available to escort supply vessels as well as provide a water escape if things get really ugly.

On Sept. 17, the Bechtel camp in the northern city of Mosul was hit by rocket fire. In Baghdad, no one leaves the camp after 11 a.m. on Friday, the holy day, to avoid angry mosque crowds. EnGarde, a Dutch company, has been hired to provide all employees with personal sets of body armor, which retail for about $500 apiece.

“There’s a point where you’re spending $200 on security to get $100 worth of work done,” Mumm acknowledges.

There are 100 personnel from ArmorGroup, a British subsidiary of a Florida company, to protect the 164 Bechtel employees in the country. Security costs during Bechtel’s 18 months in Iraq will exceed $40 million.

The Trappings of Home

Bechtel’s Baghdad compound is deep inside the Green Zone, a vast swath of land along the Tigris River where Hussein built palaces, gardens and monuments. The civilian coalition forces have made the area their headquarters, tightly restricting access. Bechtel’s camp, set in what used to be a garden, is protected by a fence, which recently was deemed to be inadequate security. The company has hired a team of elite Gurkha guards from Nepal.

Resembling over-wide house trailers, the prefabricated units are roomy and nicely cool. Their wood paneling evokes suburban family “rec” rooms from the early 1970s. There’s a special trailer with a pool table and exercise machines, and an admonition taped to the wall: “Drinking will occur only at the end of the work day.”

The idea is to keep things comfortable, letting people concentrate on their work. The commissary plays a special role, with food that is the envy of any American who’s lucky enough to be invited to eat there -- hot dogs, hamburgers, fresh pastries and soft-serve ice cream. On Labor Day, there was a barbecue with T-bones and lobster. It’s a little outpost of America, down to the “No Smoking” and “Keep Off the Grass” signs.

No one could begrudge Bechtel workers a pleasant and safe place to sleep, but all this infrastructure costs money. Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council say that having a multinational corporation like Bechtel involved in the rebuilding swells costs by a factor of 10.

“We need for the Iraqi people to be working, not sitting around and thinking about how hungry they are,” says council member Songul Chapouk, a civil engineer. “Why not fix the Iraqi companies so they can do the work?” she asks.

“Since April, a lot of money has been spent. But when you look at this country, you don’t see the results,” says council member Mahmoud Othman.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), the most persistent congressional critic of the reconstruction, wrote a letter Sept. 30 to U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten saying Bechtel and Kellogg Brown & Root were getting “too much money” for “too little work and too few opportunities for Iraqis.”

“When inordinately expensive reconstruction projects are awarded to high-cost federal contractors with close political ties to the White House, the administration can create a lose-lose situation: Not only do U.S. taxpayers vastly overpay for reconstruction services, but Iraqis are denied urgently needed employment opportunities,” Waxman wrote.

Mumm, the Bechtel executive, calls Waxman’s letter “just preposterous.” Specific allegations, such as Bechtel’s turning down Iraqi subcontractors because they lacked insurance, simply are untrue, he says.

As for giving the money directly to the Iraqis, “with American taxpayer money comes a responsibility for stewardship,” Mumm says. “If we turned over the money, the newspapers would light up at the first inkling of a kickback or kick forward or money flowing the wrong way.”

Bechtel says that Iraqi companies will get 70% of the initial $300 million it is awarding in subcontracts and that the “Iraqization” of its staff is proceeding rapidly. About 100 Iraqi engineers now work for Bechtel.

Stop a random Iraqi, however, and he’ll say he’s never heard of Bechtel, that the U.S. is doing nothing.

Iraq is a big country with a severely distressed infrastructure. In California, $1 billion would buy only one major project -- say, the proposed 13-mile light railway linking Santa Ana, Irvine and Costa Mesa. The money goes further in Iraq but not that much further.

“I don’t think the Americans are doing anything to rebuild Iraq,” says Hussain Saddam Chaloop. “They say they are, but I see no evidence.”

Chaloop is a guard at the bombed and looted main telephone exchange. Across the street, Bechtel is rewiring the phones, a process that involves splicing tens of thousands of wires and then calling the resulting number and asking who it is.

When the work first began, the technicians opened the manhole and worked outside, just as they would in a peaceful country. Sniper fire put an end to that. Now their work is well shielded from passersby.

Wild, Wild Waste

“I need a guy with a gun,” Marshall Ferris is saying at an impromptu meeting at the Rustimayah sewage plant on the outskirts of Baghdad. Because the Iraqis ave only a limited grasp of English and Ferris knows no Arabic, the Bechtel construction manager is speaking loudly and slowly, hoping to make up by force what is being lost in translation.

Nearly all the work at the plant will be done by local laborers, but one of Ferris’ engineers, a lanky guy with a droopy mustache named John Hansen, will be here every day. Until now, Hansen has been protected by Bechtel’s imported security, but there just aren’t enough of the British guards to go around.

“We can’t afford this,” Ferris tells Hansen as the meeting breaks up. “I’m volunteering the Iraqis to protect you.”

This is news to Hansen. The sewage plant is both remote and vast; if there’s trouble in such a setting, you want someone who’s on your payroll, who can speak your language and who carries an MP5. And in Iraq, you have to expect trouble nearly all the time. A few days ago, there was a man shooting a pistol behind the sewage plant’s pumping station. Hansen was immediately hustled off the site by the ArmorGroup guards.

“If something starts out here, you don’t know where the Iraqi guards are going to go,” the engineer says. Giving up his Armor security, he adds, “is not the way we should go. No frigging way.”

The work is going to be hard enough as it is. Although projects such as the airports and the port are essentially done, at Rustimayah the task has barely begun.

Everything in the waste and water treatment plants, like just about everything that wasn’t nailed down in Iraq and much that was, was looted in April. One Baghdad pumping station had its control panels and cable stolen. The International Committee of the Red Cross replaced the equipment. The station was looted again. For a second time, the Red Cross rehabilitated the plant. It was looted a third time.

Just about the only thing that didn’t disappear at Rustimayah was the sewage itself. In fact, there’s way too much waste here. It’s clogging up the works. This was true long before the war. United Nations sanctions, imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, meant that spare parts couldn’t be ordered from overseas.

“They cannibalized what they had to keep going, and eventually nothing was left,” says Stephen John Palmer, another Bechtel engineer. “That’s when the rot set in.”

Cobwebs stretch across much of the equipment. Asked about the last time the plant functioned well, the site manager, Riadh Numan, smiles. “Maybe 20 years,” he says. “We need some parts, maybe all parts.”

The farther south you go in Iraq, the worse the water gets. Because none of the Baghdad sewage plants is working, the waste from 5 million people flows down the Tigris to Basra, where they drink water contaminated with it. Health officials have been worried about waterborne diseases. There were several dozen reported cases of cholera, and a diarrheal illness sent 300 to the hospital in April. Surprisingly, that was the worst of it.

Thirty laborers from Tawf, a local construction firm, have started scraping the Rustimayah equipment clean. More than 100 others will join them soon. This stage alone will take four months.

Ferris inspects a sludge gate. Most of it is covered with muck, baked into place by the scorching Iraqi sun. The gate is stuck.

“We’ll clean it,” says a Tawf superintendent, Malak Altaie.

“It doesn’t do any good to clean it if it doesn’t work right,” Ferris says. He mimes turning the handle.

“We’ll put a motor on it,” Altaie says.

“Why put a motor on the pump if it doesn’t move?” Ferris asks, exasperated.

Like so many other issues, this is left unresolved. It will be up to Hansen to follow through.

Hazardous Assignment

The 51-year-old electrical engineer was working for Bechtel in Saudi Arabia when he got the call. “It was another place to go work, a little more dangerous,” he says. “My wife had a few reservations.” She and the couple’s two young boys live in a small town in Washington state.

An experienced engineer for a big firm like Bechtel earns about $100,000 a year, according to industry organizations. The company says it pays an undisclosed bonus to its Iraq engineers for working under what essentially are combat conditions.

Like other Bechtel employees here, Hansen works six seven-day weeks and then gets two weeks off. It’s more than twice as much vacation as he was getting in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, there’s not much downtime in Iraq. Hansen gets to the plant at 8 a.m. and leaves about 4 p.m. When he returns to the camp, he does paperwork, eats dinner and then catches half an hour of CNN on the 13-channel satellite TV in his room. “That’s about it,” he says.

The mechanical and electrical portion of the Rustimayah job will cost $15 million to $20 million. After 18 months, sewage will be coming into the plant and clear water will be coming out the other end -- water you could drink. “Not that I would,” Hansen says with a laugh.

“Any problems, just lower your profile and we’ll deal with it,” says the ArmorGroup guard riding shotgun in a Bechtel sport utility vehicle.

In other words, duck.

There’s a lot of time for problems to develop, because the SUV and another beefed-up Ford Excursion have been circling the same streets for more than an hour now. Those in the vehicles are trying to find a particular school using the global positioning system, but with all the success they’re having, they might as well be looking for weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, they locate what seems to be the right school. It’s empty, and the Armor guys go in to check it out, MP5s drawn. Outside, as is so often the case, there’s a serious amount of gunfire in the near distance, although as usual no one appears overly concerned. Gunfire and explosions in Baghdad are like the sound of rain in Seattle -- so frequent that eventually you stop noticing.

It’s not the right school. The GPS coordinates are wrong. With 1,200 schools being rehabilitated more or less simultaneously, it’s an understandable mistake. The correct coordinates are phoned in and the vans quickly arrive at Al Alam School, where the paint and plaster are barely dry. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Rodenfels says.

A year ago, he couldn’t have imagined he’d be doing something like this. Rodenfels was working at Bechtel’s nuclear waste treatment plant in South Carolina, later transferring to the telecommunications division in Maryland. A job posting for a construction coordinator in Iraq brought him here in May.

At Al Alam, doors have been replaced, windows fixed, ceiling fans installed and -- Rodenfels is particularly proud of this -- water fountains equipped with filters. No longer will the kids have to drink water straight from the sewage-filled river.

The caretaker appears. Abdul Latif Ebraheem starts spinning a long story about how he killed someone in 1959 and then again in 1972. He was saved from hanging by his father, who sold two houses to pay off the judges.

His credentials established, Ebraheem has a request.

“Can you build a house for me?” he asks Rodenfels.

“Sorry, not my department,” the engineer says. “All I do is fix schools.”


Times staff writers Edmund Sanders and Mark Fineman contributed to this report.



Bechtel Group

Founded: 1898 by farmer turned construction chief Warren A. Bechtel

Headquarters: San Francisco

Chairman and chief executive: Riley Bechtel, Warren’s great-grandson

Owners: Senior executives, who must sell their stock back to the company when they retire, and the Bechtel family

Employees worldwide: 44,000

2002 revenue: $11.6 billion -- 71% from projects in the U.S., the rest from work in 60 other countries

Some major projects

* Hoover Dam

* San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

* Trans-Arabian Pipeline

* Three Mile Island cleanup

* Bay Area Rapid Transit system

* Washington, D.C., Metro system

* Arizona’s Palo Verde nuclear power plant

* San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente

* English Channel Tunnel

Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times