IRAQ: Contractor Bechtel leaves disintegrating Iraq short of goal

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 company 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.

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.

The company went to Iraq with a good deal of well-earned swagger.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Riley P. Bechtel told the company'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."

The company expected Iraq to develop from an aid recipient to a customer.

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 Clifford G. 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," Mumm said.

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 killed, as were 11 employees of the concrete supplier. 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 testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform.

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

"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."

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