In Iraq, school administrators are struggling to keep their classroom doors open and their students educated, in the face of many obstacles unleashed by the occupation of the country. Looting has become commonplace, while lack of supplies and the decay of basic infrastructure make teaching a challenge.
Into this situation steps Bechtel Corporation, the San Francisco-based engineering and construction giant. In April Bechtel was awarded a contract by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for the reconstruction of Iraq's primary and secondary schools, as part of a deal worth up to $1.03 billion to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. But the question remains whether Bechtel, like the US army, is part of the solution or part of the problem.
Bend it Like Bechtel
Headmaster Abdel-Razzaq Ali's school is located in a predominantly Shi'ite quarter in a poor area of Baghdad. More than 1,500 students attend the Anbariyn School in two shifts: boys in the morning, girls in the afternoon. Looting has never been a problem at his school. But Abdel-Razzaq has his share of problems in the new Iraq. "The parents are constantly complaining to me, but who can I complain to?" he wonders. He is particularly skeptical about the refurbishment plans for the school, which are being carried out by Bechtel Corporation.
The Anbariyn School is one of 1,500 schools being refurbished by Bechtel using American funds. Within the framework of its reconstruction program, Bechtel has subcontracted work to 65 Iraqi companies. The project is referred to on its Web site as "a truly humanitarian effort". "Of all the things we're doing here, this one really touches individuals - students, parents, teachers, and entire communities - in a very personal way," Thor Christiansen, manager of the Iraqi School Program, is quoted as saying. Abdel-Razzaq, however, shakes his head in response. "If they had given the money to us directly," he explained, "we would have done a far better job."
At the start of the program Abdel-Razzaq received a visit from a representative of the Iraqi company, Adnan Mussawi, which Bechtel subcontracted to carry out the work. The headmaster was asked to sign a declaration that the work had been completed, which he refused to do until the work had actually been done. Twenty days later, the walls were painted, the rusty doors painted over, new electric cables laid, and some of the sanitary facilities replaced. However, the real problem with the toilets -- namely the sewage pipes -- were left untouched. So Abdel-Razzaq is sure that next winter once more, there will be a lake of sewage in the bathrooms.
Most of the cheap plastic cisterns are already broken. Even a broken banister that resulted in one child falling one floor down - was not considered to be part of Bechtel's renovation plan. So the director ordered to weld it again, paying the work out of his own pocket. The work on the school, according to Abdel-Razzaq, was completed without a single person from the Bechtel corporation appraising the work. "Why do we need Bechtel? They have done absolutely nothing," he said.
Lack of Oversight
Dr Nabil Khudair Abbas, from the planning center at the Ministry for Education which is responsible for a quarter of Baghdad's schools, confirmed Abdel-Razzaq's sentiments. He meets with representatives of the Bechtel Corporation on a weekly basis, and presents his complaints with regard to its school reconstruction program. The program is anything but transparent, he tells them, and none of the work is checked. Nobody in the Ministry of Education knows exactly how much the US has given Bechtel to implement the program, nor the details of the work to be carried out in individual schools.
"The impression we often get at the meetings is that Bechtel is more powerful than the army," he said. Bechtel representatives, however, want no more complaints from Dr Abbas. The program is a gift from the US taxpayers, and has been approved by Congress, they say. "No matter what we do, the Iraqis will never be on the losing end," a Bechtel representative told him. His grievances -- the fact that of the 750 schools which are included in his mandate, 20 were destroyed during the war and 170 were looted because the occupation forces failed to provide adequate security -- do not in the least interest Bechtel.
For Abdel-Razzaq, the old school bell symbolizes all that is wrong with the Bechtel program. The big, old, fully functioning bell was removed and replaced by a small, highly polished silver version. "Do you want to hear it?" asks Abdel-Razzaq, and presses the button. The clapper hits the bell, which croaks in response. This is a new bell for a new Iraq, says the headmaster. "Do you seriously believe I can summon 1,500 students to class with this?" But the clever headmaster came up with a special solution. After the recess, a child from each class walks over the school yard, gathering its classmates - enthusiastically swinging a little bell in its hand.
Teaching Under Occupation
Unlike Abdel-Razzaq, Khadija Ali Medshwal is worried about the security situation at her school. The Naguib Pasha Primary School in Baghdad is adjacent to several foreign embassies as well as the homes of several members of the Interim Governing Council (IGC). All are targets for attacks "against the occupation". She is also concerned about the safety of the children at the school.
Kidnapping the offspring of wealthy parents has been the norm since the end of the war. If this were not enough, she says, US soldiers regularly turn up unannounced at the school -- like today -- and the children can then study a special American military maneuver. Lieutenant Corban Sawyer marches ahead while one of his armed soldiers covers his back. When Lieutenant Corban Sawyer enters the principal's office, his rearguard takes up his post at the door, automatic weapon resting on his knee, eyes suspiciously on the potentially hostile school yard.
Lieutenant Sawyer says he feels good about helping the neighborhood get back on its feet, even though he is actually responsible for military "intelligence gathering". His job for today: inventory. He asks the head if she needs anything for the school. Khadija hands over a list with a smile and asks if perhaps barbed wire can be added to the top of the wall. She also allows the officer to take her photograph; "for our files", explains Lieutenant Sawyer, leaving the school accompanied by his corporals, though not before expressing his astonishment at the friendliness exhibited by the Iraqi people.
This friendliness, however, is short-lived. As soon as the officer leaves the office, Khadija's smile quickly fades. "I hate it when they turn up unannounced," she explains. "The first time they came here, they went from classroom to classroom with guns dangling over their shoulders, asking the terrified children whom they loved more, Saddam Hussein or George Bush." The school principal expects little from the Americans. The list of provisions for the school, she says -- tables, chairs and a television set -- she has given to the Americans at least a dozen times. At first she used to write a new list for each visit, now she simply copies the old one. "There is no point, nothing happens anyway," she explains.
Karim El-Gawhary is an Egyptian journalist who regularly reports from Iraq.