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April 2004 • Vol 4, No. 4 •

Bechtel Out of Iraq!

Report From Direct Action Against War

On April 17, 2003, Bechtel was awarded its first Iraq reconstruction contract worth up to $680 million over 18 months. The contract covered assessment and repair of power generation facilities, electrical grids, municipal water systems and sewage systems; rehabilitation or repair of airport facilities; and the dredging, repair and upgrading of the Umm Qasr seaport.

On December 31, 2003, Bechtel was awarded a second “Iraq Infrastructure II” contract worth up to $1.8 billion extending through December 2005. This contract calls for Bechtel to repair and rehabilitate one port, five airports, electric power systems, road and rail systems, municipal water and sanitation services, school and health facilities, select government buildings and irrigation systems. Bechtel is to work on institutional capacity building for operation and maintenance, as well as creating a “ roadmap” for future longer-term needs.

According the U.S. Agency for International Development (the government agency responsible for Bechtel’s contract), one year after the invasion “Baghdad’s three sewage treatment plants, which together comprise three-quarters of the nation’s sewage treatment capacity, are inoperable, allowing the waste from 3.8 million people to flow untreated directly into the Tigris River. In the rest of the country, most sewage treatment plants were only partially operational prior to the conflict, and shortage of electricity, parts and chemicals have exacerbated the situation. Water that is pumped through the system is largely untreated, especially in the South.” Virtually the only success stories cited by USAID in Iraq are attributed to the work of UNICEF, CARE, Save the Children and other international NGOs.


Bechtel’s contract requires that it focus its “water sector activities on ensuring the provision of potable water supplies to the population of Southern Iraq” during the “initial 60 days” of its contract. However, according to a recent report by the Washington Post, Bechtel has absolutely failed to meet this requirement. The Post reports that “the country’s water distribution system is in peril. Water engineers predict a crisis-level shortage of drinkable water in Baghdad and other parts of the country if something is not done soon.”

The most extensive assessment of Iraq’s water systems due out this month by Dahr Jamail for Public Citizen, reaches the same conclusion. Drinking water throughout the country is in a crisis state, with some villages having no access to water while larger cities receive water approximately 50 percent of the time. This has led to vast outbreaks of cholera, diarrhea, nausea and kidney stones, among other diseases.


While Bechtel reports that they have “returned electricity generation to pre-conflict levels,” this claim is not supported by the experience of Iraqis. In Iraq, power outages lasting for 24 hours a day are still more often the rule than the exception. The Daura power plant, Baghdad’s largest, which should supply one third of the city’s generating capacity was producing only 10 percent as recently as December. Helmut Doll, the German site manager for Babcok Power, a subcontractor of Siemens, told Newsweek that “Bechtel only came and took photos. We can’t judge Bechtel’s work progress because they’re not here.”

The same story is repeated across Iraq. Either they haven’t seen Bechtel, or the work that has been provided is inadequate and intermittent. Bechtel representatives have admitted as much, citing the constant sabotage of their work and their ill-preparedness going in, commenting that they did not realize how intertwined the electricity, water and sewage systems were, greatly complicating their repair efforts. Of course, the Iraqis knew this and could have told them if they had asked.

The Iraqis point out that after the first Gulf War, they were able to restore electricity in just three months. Mohsen Hassan, technical director for power generation at the Iraqi ministry of electricity, told Southern Studies, “We, the Iraqi engineers, can repair anything, but we need money and spare parts and so far Bechtel has provided us with neither. The only thing that the company has given us so far is promises.”

Schools and Hospitals

Bechtel often cites the 1595 schools it has “rehabilitated” in Iraq. However, this is less than a fifth of Iraq’s 10,000 schools. And, as Newsweek reported, “many of the rehabilitated schools don’t look ready for the morning bell.” The constant complaint from Iraqi Ministry of Education officials and headmistresses and ministers of schools that Bechtel has worked on, is that the work is either non-existent or shoddy, often putting students health and safety at risk. An internal study by U.S. Army personnel cited in Southern Studies, strongly criticized Bechtel’s attempts to renovate Iraqi schools. Comments such as the following were common: “the new fans are cheap and burned out immediately upon use. All inspected were already broke.” “Lousy paint job. Major clean-up work required. Bathrooms in poor condition.” Southern Studies visited four Baghdad schools all listed as renovated by Bechtel. They found rain leaking through ceilings, shorting out power, new paint peeling and floors that had not been completely repaired. New brass taps and doors painted, but toilets and sinks that had not been touched. At Hawa School, for example, the headmistress showed the authors toilets where a new water system had been installed, pipes, taps and a motor to pump the water. However, the motor didn’t work, so the toilets reeked with unflushed sewage. The conditions reported in Bechtel hospitals are similar: shoddy or non-existent work accompanied by desperate and unmet human needs.

The Answer: Let the Iraqis do the work themselves

There is a mantra repeated by Iraqi ministry officials, engineers, doctors, teachers, and anyone else who you ask? “Let the Iraqis do the work themselves.” The Iraqis have the skill, experience and knowledge to do the work better than Bechtel. What they need is money, access to parts and the permission of the U.S. government to do the work. They have not only monitored these systems for decades, they have rebuilt and maintained them after one previous U.S. invasion and twelve years of brutal economic sanctions.

As belligerent powers who initiated the war, and as occupying powers, the U.S. and the UK are obligated to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people and to pay for reconstruction. However, the $15 billion currently allocated for this work is insufficient. More money should be allocated for reconstruction from the $65 billion currently scheduled to continue the occupation and the billions of dollars being spent on the futile search for weapons of mass destruction. Rather than take these funds from vital U.S. public services, they should be raised from an excess profits tax on corporations benefiting from the war and post-war privatization in Iraq.





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