IRAQ: American Workers in Iraq Accept Danger

The government either doesn't know or won't say the actual number of workers engaged in reconstruction, and companies won't discuss it, citing security concerns. But the Department of Labor does know the death toll: As of March 31, death claims for civil
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Contra Costa Times

After four months living at Camp Victory near Baghdad, Darnell Baker had grown accustomed to the mortars and rockets that insurgents often fired at the U.S. Army base after midnight.

If they made it over the walls at all, the explosives tended to fall near the soldiers' camps. That's the equivalent of two or three city blocks from the rows of aluminum trailers reserved for civilian employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing much of Iraq's $18.4 billion reconstruction effort.

Given the comfortable margin, Baker, an emergency operations assistant for the Corps, nearly fell back asleep after a blast roused him sometime after 4:30 a.m. one morning last September. But then another landed, and another and another -- each drawing closer to his trailer.

"Oh, crap," he thought to himself, "It's time to hit the deck!"

Baker, a San Francisco resident, is just one of thousands of American civilians who has volunteered to work in Iraq as private contractors, engineers or security specialists, despite the possibility of waking up to this or similar life-threatening scenarios.

The government either doesn't know or won't say the actual number of workers engaged in reconstruction, and companies won't discuss it, citing security concerns. But the Department of Labor does know the death toll: As of March 31, death claims for civilians working on U.S. government contracts in Iraq had reached 276.

The recent surge of insurgent attacks and the abduction of engineer Douglas Wood, the Alamo resident and Australian citizen seen pleading for his life in a videotape released Sunday, only underscores the ongoing danger.

So why would anyone go?

Civilians who work in Iraq are fully aware of the risks but feel drawn by the challenge of tackling a reconstruction project on a scale not seen since the Marshall Plan, the United States' plan for Europe's recovery after World War II, or the chance to help a troubled nation, recruiters and workers themselves say. In addition, it's often an opportunity to make significantly more money than they can in the United States.

Volunteers line up

Businesses won't discuss their recruitment methods, but say that, sometimes to their own surprise, they've had little difficulty filling positions in Iraq.

"From the beginning, we have had and sustained an all-volunteer program over there to help with the reconstruction," said Mike Kidder, a spokesman for San Francisco-based engineering and construction giant Bechtel, which won several major Iraq contracts. "The progress has been very, very good."

He didn't expect the kidnapping of Wood, who worked for Bechtel for 25 years, to change that.

Similarly, the member companies of the Washington, D.C.-based Construction Industry Round Table have had little trouble filling Iraq openings, said the trade group's president Mark Casso. Specifically, Pasadena-based Parsons Corp., which is doing a significant amount of subcontracting work and has needed to plug more than 100 positions, has been shocked at how easily it found candidates for the potentially dangerous posts, he said.

"(Workers) have this attitude that, yes, it's dangerous, but it's a job that has to be done," said William Beaver, who runs Kuwait-based, a recruitment Web site for candidates seeking work in potentially hazardous regions. "Some are patriotic in part and feel like they are contributing. Others are there for the money and tax benefits."

Money to be made

Indeed, some workers stand to make considerably more in a combat zone than they can domestically, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a Virginia-based trade group representing companies that contract with the federal government.

"For a truck driver making $30,000 a year, a $70,000 or $80,000 or $90,000 a year job looks pretty good," said Soloway, who estimates that his member companies have about 30,000 employees working in Iraq.

Despite the willingness of some workers to ship off to Iraq, the reconstruction effort has been beset with delays and obstacles, many directly attributable to security concerns.

Last May, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development told the Associated Press that three out of 10 Americans and other non-Iraqis working on reconstruction projects had left the country since the beginning of the previous month due to security concerns.

Several firms have exited the country for similar reasons, including, late last year, Virginia-based Contrack International Inc. The major contractor dropped out of a joint venture that had secured a $325 million contract to rebuild the country's transportation infrastructure, citing the soaring cost of security.

Small-arms and mortar fire had become routine at construction sites, and an Egyptian driver working for the firm was kidnapped and found 12 days later with five bullet holes in his head, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Shifting work to Iraqis

Some work is also now being shifted to Iraqi subcontractors, in part because they are "somewhat less susceptible to insurgency attacks," according to a State Department report to Congress early last month.

But giving more work to Iraqis also reflects a conscious effort to make the nation stable and self-sufficient, the ultimate aim of the reconstruction, said Major Tom Leonard, director of public affairs for the Iraq Project and Contracting Office.

"The goal is to have an Iraqi economy and business practices that are fully integrated and capable of conducting ... projects on this scale," he said.

These high-minded ambitions were little comfort that September morning, however, as Baker laid face down on the floor of his trailer.

Unlike mortars, which are silent until they collide with their target, each of the Chinese-made missiles announced its impending arrival with a high-pitched squeal that grew louder as it approached the Corps' camp, USACE Village. They landed with a boom that shook Baker's trailer and pelted others with rocks and dirt.

One blasted a crater in the parking lot. Another hit a nearby water truck and blew out the windows of the Corps office. A third landed less than fifty feet from a living trailer.

Fifteen long minutes later, the missiles ceased. No one was hurt.

"I've never been that scared in my life," said Baker, an infantryman with the U.S. Marine Corps during the first Gulf War. Two months after returning to San Francisco, the dreams are only now starting to fade.

Baker spent eight months in Iraq, organizing secure convoys for aid workers and picking up paychecks for Iraqi translators frightened of being seen visiting a known U.S. office. He said working in Iraq was a chance to help others and be a part of history.

The morning after the barrage, he and his colleagues walked around surveying the damage, cracking jokes and snapping photos. None spoke of going home early, and Baker said he never considered it.

"Everybody over there had a good attitude; we all knew the risks," he said. "I saw it as part altruistic, part patriotic and part just for the adventure."

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
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