IRAQ: Parsons has had Plenty of Contracts Worldwide, but Nothing Like This

It is a lesson learned and relearned in Iraq. The U.S. has awarded billions of dollars' worth of work to American firms in the most ambitious rebuilding project since the Marshall Plan in Europe five decades ago. But nearly two years after the fall of Sa
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The Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD - To get ready for their next construction project, a group of engineers gathered first in a bland corporate classroom back home in Pasadena.

They learned how to stop the bleeding from a bullet wound. They got tips on avoiding abduction. They struggled to fit bulletproof vests over middle-age paunches.

Their task: Help rebuild Iraq.

"Security is the most important thing there," said the grim-faced instructor, a former Army Ranger. "If you don't have security, nothing else happens."

It is a lesson learned and relearned in Iraq. The U.S. has awarded billions of dollars' worth of work to American firms in the most ambitious rebuilding project since the Marshall Plan in Europe five decades ago. But nearly two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. is still struggling to deliver electricity, clean water, healthcare and other services.

Caught in the crossfire are private companies such as Parsons Corp. of Pasadena. A leading international engineering and construction company, Parsons is well acquainted with mega-projects in foreign lands. It has built airports, bridges, tunnels and dams in the Middle East, China and elsewhere.

Iraq has been different, and the struggle to provide security and overcome bureaucracy helps explain why reconstruction costs so much and takes so long. Here, Parsons weighs its need for profit against the imperative to keep its employees from getting killed. Everyday tasks require courage, and the bizarre is commonplace.

Corporate executives struggle with decisions that risk employees' lives. Mortar rounds crash into the company's compound. Iraqi employees duck car bombs on their daily commutes.

Rebuilding has also been hampered by a fragmented U.S. leadership. Company officials juggle demands from as many as five agencies. Government contracting officers serve for as little as two months before moving on. Auditors swarm the projects, insisting on elaborate documentation in a place where deals are often sealed with a handshake. Iraqi officials intervene, sometimes for dubious reasons.

The company has also had to deal with quirks of Iraqi history and culture.

Parsons had to retrain some Iraqi architects, who were accustomed to using Hussein's height (6 feet 2 inches) as a unit of measure. Their particular talent - building the octagonal structures favored by the dictator, whose name contains eight letters in Arabic - was no longer in demand.

And to win permission from a tribal leader to undertake a project, a Parsons subcontractor had to agree to slaughter two dozen sheep and hold a feast for the locals.

Rebuilding Iraq, it turns out, is its own sort of war.

This is not Parsons' first encounter with Iraq.

In the 1950s, it surveyed groundwater sites throughout the country. In the 1980s, it had a contract to help design a subway system for Baghdad. Although the subway was never built, U.S. officials came knocking before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, wondering if the blueprints might guide them to Hussein's bunkers.

"They wanted to see if we still had the old plans," spokeswoman Erin Kuhlman said. Parsons couldn't find them.

The rebuilding effort developed haphazardly in the months after the invasion, and it became clear that the U.S. needed a strategy that would both pacify Iraqis and get the country functioning again.

In the end, five agencies representing the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, each with its own agenda, were authorized to pay out a total of $60.3 billion in U.S. and Iraqi funds, almost all of it to private contractors.

Parsons became one of the biggest players in March 2004, when it won half a dozen U.S.-funded contracts worth more than $2 billion. The biggest were to help restore Iraq's northern oil fields and to rebuild its health, security and justice systems and its government buildings.

Seven days after the company was awarded the final contract, four American contractors were killed in Fallouja, their bodies burned by a mob and two of them hung from a bridge as television cameras rolled.

Suddenly, it was clear that contractors were targets.

"It changed everything," recalled Larry Hartman, who heads Parsons' efforts to build and refurbish clinics, hospitals and government ministries.

Security soon came to dominate every facet of reconstruction. The focus on safety is clear at Parsons' compound, which covers several square blocks in the Green Zone, the fortified area of Baghdad that is home to the Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy. The Times agreed not to disclose certain details, such as site locations, security precautions and Iraqi employee names, in return for access to Parsons' operations.

Parsons employees live in pairs in small white trailers surrounded by stacks of sandbags. Each employee gets a cramped bedroom with faux wood paneling, a television set, DVD player and mini-fridge. Bathrooms are shared.

A typical Parsons engineer earns about $150,000 a year in Iraq, roughly double normal pay. Almost $90,000 of it is tax-free.

Employees rarely leave the camp, much less the Green Zone. They work seven days a week, 12 hours a day for 90 days in a row, a grind broken up by two-week vacations.

Daily amusement is at a small trailer that has been turned into a makeshift bar. On a recent night, security contractors with shaved heads played darts. A handful of engineers huddled at the small bar. The television was tuned to a CNN fashion special featuring scantily clad models. Mosquitoes flitted through the air.

The threat of violence is never far away. Shelters are near each trailer. More than a dozen mortar rounds have fallen close by in the last several months, and one struck a building. Parsons does not disclose casualty figures, but several people are known to have been killed or injured in the Green Zone.

"I'm in the cradle of civilization," Doug Zwissler, one of Parsons' deputy program managers, said over beers one night. "I've read about it since I was in grade school. And I can't go anywhere."

The violence impedes nearly everything Parsons does.

Since the engineers generally don't risk going to work sites, they oversee design and construction from their Green Zone headquarters, a series of low-ceilinged trailers whose crammed desks and cheap carpeting are about as far as one can get from the hushed corporate hallways of company headquarters in Pasadena.

The place is in constant motion. Engineers, support staff and security guards filter in and out. Security personnel conduct daily briefings. Arabic and English mingle in the air. Photos of children - and children's hand-drawn pictures from home - plaster the walls.

Not being able to visit the work sites makes it difficult to envision what needs to be done, said Paul Rich, who helps oversee the rebuilding of scores of clinics. Rich does much of his work by consulting digital photos taken by Iraqi employees who go to the sites and supervise construction.

"You can't fix things, you can't anticipate things. There are time lags. It's unbelievable," Rich said.

Some reconstruction projects have been destroyed by insurgents. Parsons rebuilt the police academy in Mosul, only to see it ruined after guerrillas attacked the building.

Parsons' Iraqi workers have been followed, threatened, shot at and kidnapped. The country's everyday violence also takes a toll on their lives. Every one of more than a dozen Iraqi workers interviewed said relatives or co-workers had been killed.

To reduce the risks, Parsons, like other contractors in Iraq, strips its projects of any signs of Western involvement. Local employees are not identified as working for U.S. firms. In spite of Parsons' efforts to impose Western safety standards, some day laborers refuse to wear hard hats or goggles since those are a telltale sign of U.S. funding.

At one site, an Iraqi subcontractor, fearing violence, posted a sign with a portrait of Muqtada Sadr, the rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric, suggesting that he was paying for the project. Parsons ordered the sign taken down, but the subcontractor protested. It would be sacrilege to take down a Sadr portrait, he said, but in the end it came down.

The focus on safety also has led to disagreements with the U.S. military, which regards the reconstruction work as crucial to building goodwill among Iraqis.

U.S. troops have shown up at construction sites where Parsons was trying to operate under cover. A military convoy arrived with bullhorns at one site in an especially active insurgent area to announce that the project was funded by the U.S.

Parsons sees such actions as endangering its workers. After much discussion, the U.S. military has cut down on high-profile site visits.

"We just want to get the work done," Hartman said.

Parsons takes its orders from an ever-changing cast of government contracting officials. They are almost all on loan from other agencies or military branches.

Tom Archer, who heads Parsons' security projects, said he had seven contracting officers in less than a year. Each new officer must adjust to the country, learn the project and meet his Iraqi counterparts. A few weeks later, the officer leaves.

Requirements also change constantly.

Parsons proposed using bulldozers to clear a site for a landfill. The government insisted on using day laborers to do the work by hand to provide more jobs for Iraqis. Parsons had the contracting officer document the orders for fear that a future auditor would question the use of shovels instead of heavy equipment.

An order to rebuild Iraq's looted Education Ministry was canceled after the company had already done $1 million worth of work. The U.S. decided the project would cost too much.

"The government wants all this work done quickly and they want it done with the least expense and they want it done in total compliance" with federal regulations, said Earnest Robbins, a senior vice president at Parsons. "Sometimes, those goals are mutually exclusive."

Iraqi officials sometimes try to dictate to Parsons, with questionable motives.

After a fierce battle in south-central Iraq, Parsons was called in to clean up a hospital. Corpses were floating in the flooded basement. The hospital's top official ordered Parsons to hire a specific firm. Concerned about a possible kickback scheme, Parsons refused and sent over its own crew of subcontractors.

The hospital official called the local police and had the entire crew arrested. In the end, Parsons allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over.

Company officials say they have reported corruption when they have seen it. But in many cases, there is no hard evidence. "We don't get involved in it," Hartman said.

For all the difficulties, it is clear from the activity across Iraq that reconstruction has begun. The question now is whether it will proceed quickly enough to persuade the Iraqis to cooperate with, or at least tolerate, the U.S. presence.

Parsons, which hopes to complete most of its projects by the end of the year, is in the final stages of building more than 120 forts along the Iraq-Iran border. The company has helped destroy more than 218 kilotons in explosives found in arms caches around Iraq. It is also building about 150 clinics and refurbishing 20 hospitals. Parsons says it employs about 5,000 Iraqis.

The company also is in final talks with the government to build two massive prisons. Designed partly to erase the stain of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, they will come close to U.S. standards, including having auditoriums and gyms - novel for prisons in the Middle East.

"Considering the fact that this is Iraq and there is a war going on, we have made good progress," Archer said.

Some of the most impressive results, however, can be seen in the faces of Parsons' local employees. They are learning practices common in the global economy, including software and engineering techniques. They have also taken part in something larger than themselves: the rebuilding of their country.

One man has spent several months on one of Parsons' most dangerous projects, a subcontract to lay water pipes throughout a volatile Baghdad neighborhood. For the first time, 4,000 residents there can drink water straight from the tap.

It has been anything but easy. He has been followed; he has been threatened three times to stop work; he has been pinned down by a firefight between U.S. forces and militants. A squat man with dark hair and piercing eyes, he struggles with English to explain his motives.

"If you see that area, if you see the children, what they're playing in, you'd know why I'm doing it," he said. "We want our kids to drink water like other kids elsewhere in the world."

Another Iraqi engineer works to clean up the pumping stations that carry sewage to treatment plants. For him, the project is personal: Relatives live on streets where raw sewage oozes up in reeking pools.

Every time he walks home, he also must pass a section of his neighborhood where grieving families hang black banners that serve as Iraq's obituary pages, announcing the deaths of loved ones killed by insurgents. Many of the dead are engineers. It is a daily reminder of the value they hold as targets for the militants.

"It's not easy for us," he said. "I won't lie. I'm afraid. But if we don't do it, who will?"

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