Heavy toll of violence on Iraq rebuilding

Posted in Iraq | 15-Apr-04 | Author: Elizabeth Becker| Source: The New York Times

Security problems, rising costs and evacuation of foreigners handicap contractors

WASHINGTON The recent wave of violence and abductions in Iraq is taking its toll on reconstruction projects, causing slowdowns or temporary shutdowns as many Iraqi workers refuse to show up at projects, roads are blocked and foreign contractors restrict their movements to thwart potential hostage takers.

Several countries, including Russia and France, began advising their foreign nationals working in Iraq to leave the country on Tuesday. Russia urged its citizens to leave following the abduction and release of eight of its citizens who were working for a firm restoring power in Iraq.

Private and government officials here and in Baghdad were reluctant to tally up the cost of these delays or explain how they are responding out of fear it would further jeopardize the projects.

Officials at Halliburton and Bechtel, two of the biggest private contractors in Iraq, said they were resolved to continue in the country, but they refused to describe any new security measures they may be taking to protect foreign workers, including whether they were declaring certain job sites off-limits to foreign workers or beginning to evacuate some employees.

But officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority that is now governing the country did say that at least one-third of the 5,400 Iraqis working on their construction projects have failed to show up for work over the past few days.

"The Iraqis are fearful for their safety at the job site or they don't want to be seen working for us," said Captain Bruce Cole of the U.S. Navy, a spokesman for the Program Management Office of the authority.

Corporations are severely restricting travel to keep their foreign contractors out of harm's way.

These setbacks could also have an unwelcome effect on efforts to recruit more foreigners to work in Iraq. Additional security guards can be hired but they, too, would become targets of the insurgents. Several officials noted that security concerns are preventing them from rebuilding water, electrical and other critical projects that, in turn, would help calm the situation and improve security.

One of the last private relief organizations still working in central Iraq evacuated its foreign workers to the north over the weekend, saying security was too tenuous.

"We're watching very closely - everyone is holding their breath," said Nancy Lindbourg of Mercy Corps.

The call for evacuations by Russia and France represent an about-face by these nations who complained at the beginning of the occupation that the United States was cutting them out of lucrative reconstruction contracts. About 40 foreigners from 12 countries are being held by kidnappers, according to coalition authorities.

While refusing to discuss the details, all the officials said many projects have had to be suspended because of the violence. These include refurbishing military bases for Iraqis and repairing large swaths of the electrical power grids.

For the moment, the suspension of these projects should have little effect on the everyday lives of Iraqis - no new electricity cuts or new disruptions of water service, for example.

But the longer the delay because of fighting, the greater the chance that costs will multiply and Iraqis will be disappointed when projects do not come on line as promised.

The United States Agency for International Development, which oversees $3 billion in contracts for things like local governance and schools, said that already there are areas where its experts have had to suspend work. But they continue to work in other parts of Iraq.

"It's a very tense time but it is also very temporary," said Portia Palmer, a spokeswoman for USAID in Washington. "It's not to the point where we think it is going to create an overall slowdown in project completion yet."

Relief groups were as reluctant as private contractors to describe their projects in Iraq and the obstacles created because of the upswing in violence.

The United Nations, which employs nearly 1,000 Iraqi nationals, said it has stopped discussing in detail its program out of fear for the security of its employees.

Oliver Ulich, of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that relief trucks were struggling to bypass the fighting and deliver essential supplies to hospitals and other facilities in towns in much of Iraq.

"Out of security concerns I can't talk about the status of some of our essential operations for health, water sanitation, or helping run the ration system," said Ulich. "But there is no question that we're continuing our work."

The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19 marked the beginning of an exodus of many private relief groups that considered the situation too dangerous for foreign workers who had become easy targets.

Now the United Nations keeps an extremely low profile in Iraq.

Nearly every private contractor issued statements this week expressing their commitment to staying in Iraq and completing their projects. They all insisted that the current fighting will not undermine the long-term impact on reconstructing Iraq. Still, private contractors are facing soaring insurance rates for foreign workers. The cost of insuring some workers has doubled in the past week, according to Reuters, which noted that some contractors are spending more than half their total operating budgets insuring and protecting workers.

Officials at Bechtel National, which won major reconstruction contracts worth nearly $2 billion from USAID in Iraq, were circumspect about their difficulties. They would not confirm or deny whether any of their workers were missing or whether there had been a delay in their projects.

"We are very limited in what we can talk about," said Valerie Kazanjian, a spokeswoman for Bechtel in San Francisco. "From our position, to tell you that security has impacted on our projects would be a threat to security."