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Bechtel calls it quits after more than 3 years in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Bechtel Corp. helped build the Bay Area subway system, Hoover Dam and a city for 200,000 in the desert of Saudi Arabia. It likes to boast that it can go anywhere, under any conditions, and build anything.

In Iraq, Bechtel met its match.

A firm that prides itself on its safety record saw dozens of its workers killed. And a company that celebrates achievement won’t know for a long time, if ever, exactly what it accomplished.

The assignment Bechtel won from the U.S. government in early 2003 was unique: Apply the brick and mortar needed to restart the long-starved and war-damaged Iraqi economy, allowing the country to blossom into a modern and free industrial state. Rarely had a single corporation been given so much power to affect so many so quickly.

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More than three years later, Bechtel says its work on Iraq’s water and electrical plants, its bridges, schools and port, is done.

The company said this week at its headquarters here that it had completed 97 of 99 projects for a total of $2.3 billion, a sum that included its undisclosed fee. Only two Bechtel employees are left in the country. At its peak, there were 200 people from Bechtel supervising tens of thousands of Iraqis.

If the story for Bechtel is drawing to a close, this isn’t anything like the happy ending it once expected.

The company went to Iraq with a good deal of well-earned swagger. Chairman Riley Bechtel told the firm’s employees in April 2003 that Bechtel’s record was one “that few, if any, companies in the world can match.” The tasks it would undertake in Iraq, he added, were “the kind of work we do best.”

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The company expected Iraq to develop from an aid recipient to a customer. The biggest U.S. engineering firm would help one of the world’s most distressed countries into the 21st century.

That hope receded with each suicide bombing.

“We were told it would be a permissive environment. But to the horror of everyone, it never stabilized. It just went down, down, down, and to this day it continues to go down,” said Cliff Mumm, who ran Bechtel’s Iraq operation. “I’m proud of what we did, but had law and order prevailed, it would be a different situation.”

At one Bechtel project, in the southern city of Basra, the company recorded this toll: The site security manager was murdered; the site manager resigned after receiving death threats; a senior engineer resigned after his daughter was kidnapped; 12 employees of the electrical-plumbing subcontractor were assassinated in their offices; and 11 employees of the concrete supplier were murdered.

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All told, 52 workers associated with Bechtel projects were killed, most of them Iraqi. Forty-nine others were wounded.

Bechtel says it completed nearly all its assigned projects, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily operating as planned.

“Once projects were complete, the plant operating crews we trained often lacked the leadership, resources or motivation needed to run and maintain their facilities,” Mumm said in September testimony to the House committee on government reform.

If Bechtel gives itself high grades under the circumstances, others aren’t so generous.

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“They thought, ‘We’re the world’s best, and we can go in and make this happen,’ ” said Rick Barton, a reconstruction specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“After all the money that’s been invested, the Iraqi people should be able to make it on their own. But we’re nowhere near that, let alone creating a shining city on a hill,” Barton added.

The looting and vandalism outpaced the rebuilding from the beginning.

In May 2003, the supposed end of open warfare, a survey of Iraq’s dilapidated electrical system showed 13 downed transmission towers. Four months later, the total had grown to 623.

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“We were trying to hold the infrastructure together and at the same time build a platform to go forward and at the same time cope with a deteriorating security situation,” said Mumm, who recently returned to the U.S. “There were a lot of moving parts.”

The company’s critics give it points for remaining free of corruption, unlike some Iraq contractors. But they say it was too slow in restoring the power grid.

“In the critical years of 2003 and 2004, part of the growing sense in the Iraqi population that Americans were incompetent occupiers rather than effective liberators came because Bechtel hadn’t gotten the power grid on in the scorching hot summers,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an expert on government contracting. “American corporate reconstruction efforts like Bechtel’s failed worse in Iraq than American arms.”

The lack of an infrastructure fed the insurgency, which made it its goal to destroy the infrastructure. As time went on, Bechtel spent increasing amounts not on rebuilding but on protecting its workers.

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Now that the reconstruction funds are running out, the fate of the Iraq infrastructure, like so much else in the country, is uncertain.

“Bechtel is putting a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner over their work in Iraq and then coming home,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. “But the mission has not been accomplished. Iraq still doesn’t have enough power, hospitals, clean water.”

Most of the bridges and roads and other projects built by Bechtel in the last century are still in use. Mumm hopes that the work the firm did in Iraq will survive.

“All that stuff is there, and available, should the Iraqis find themselves in a stable enough position to use them and take advantage of them,” he said. “I believe eventually that will happen.”

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david.streitfeld@latimes.com


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