National News
Proud and frustrated Bechtel pulls out of Iraq
Thu Nov 2, 2006 23:00

Proud and frustrated Bechtel pulls out of Iraq
National News | News

Thursday, November 02, 2006
Bechtel Corp. went to Iraq three years ago to help rebuild a nation torn by war. Since then, 52 of its people have been killed and much of its work sabotaged as Iraq dissolved into insurgency and sectarian violence.

Now Bechtel is leaving.

The San Francisco engineering company's last government contract to rebuild power, water and sewage plants across Iraq expired on Tuesday. Some employees remain to finish the paperwork, but essentially, the company's job is done.

Bechtel's contracts were part of an enormous U.S. effort to put Iraq back on its feet after decades of wars and sanctions. That rebuilding campaign, once touted as the Marshall Plan of modern times, was supposed to win the hearts of skeptical Iraqis by giving them clean water, dependable power, telephones that worked and modern sanitation. President Bush said he wanted the country's infrastructure to be the very best in the Middle East.

But Bechtel _ which charged into Iraq with American "can-do" fervor _ found it tough to keep its engineers and workers alive, much less make progress in piecing Iraq back together.

"Did Iraq come out the way you hoped it would?" asked Cliff Mumm, Bechtel's president for infrastructure work. "I would say, emphatically, no. And it's heartbreaking."

The violence that has gripped Iraq drove up costs and hamstrung the engineers who poured into the country after the U.S.-led invasion.

Bechtel's first reconstruction contract, awarded shortly after Saddam Hussein's overthrow in April 2003, assured the company that it would have a safe environment for its workers. But, by the end, dozens of Bechtel's employees and subcontractors had been killed, some of them kidnapped, others marched out of their office and shot. Forty-nine others were wounded.

Bechtel responded by hiring more guards, driving armored cars and fortifying its camps. Those steps ate up money that otherwise would have brought electricity and clean water to Iraqis.

The size of Bechtel's contracts also shrank over time, as U.S. officials diverted money from reconstruction and toward security. Instead of the nearly $3 billion originally budgeted, Bechtel finally received about $2.3 billion, a figure that includes money the company spent on projects as well as its undisclosed profit.

Mumm directed Bechtel's work from a bare-bones trailer in Baghdad. He is proud of his people for finding ways to work despite the threat of imminent death. Of 99 projects that the U.S. government directed Bechtel to complete, the company finished 97, abandoning only two for security reasons, the company says.

But Mumm's pride is mixed with frustration. Many of those completed projects later fell victim to collapsing security, which made maintenance dangerous and, in some cases, resulting in damage to plants and equipment.

He once hoped the new Iraqi government would turn into a steady Bechtel client, bringing the company lucrative new contracts in a country where virtually every road, power plant and waterworks needs repair.

"Had Iraq been a calmer place while we were there, amazing things could have been done," he said.

The U.S reconstruction push in Iraq is winding down. About $18 billion in funding that Congress approved three years ago was supposed to be spent or committed to specific projects by the end of September. Two of the U.S. government agencies that have overseen the work are scheduled to close shop early next year. The United States and other countries are discussing another round of aid, but if it comes, Iraqi ministries are supposed to take the lead on rebuilding.

"That's really an under-told story _ we've stopped the reconstruction," said Frederick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies think tank. "There are some things we're still finishing up, but we're wrapping up, and we're stepping back. It's really a tragedy."

What exactly did Bechtel accomplish in its three years in Iraq?

_ The company helped repair 14 electrical generation units, built four new ones and created 25 substations around Baghdad.

_ It restored eight sewage plants and built one.

_ A canal bringing drinking water to Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, was dredged and its pumps restored. Seventy small water treatment plants were installed in rural areas.

_ Airports in Baghdad and Basra were repaired to handle civilian flights. The country's international shipping port _ Umm Qasr _ was dredged and its grain elevator refurbished.

_ Baghdad telephone switching stations knocked out during the war were restored, and the country's phone network was reconnected to the outside world.

_ War-damaged bridges on key highways were rebuilt.

_ Almost 1,240 schools were refurbished with new paint, fans and in many cases new windows and doors to replace those looters had stolen.

But many of these accomplishments were undone as security evaporated.