Companies From All Over Seek a Piece of Action Rebuilding Iraq


By Elizabeth Becker

New York Times
May 21, 2003

The pitch from Egyptian and Jordanian companies is that since their workers speak Arabic, they are best suited for jobs rebuilding Iraq. The Filipino companies emphasize that they have a well-educated, English-speaking labor force that has worked around the world with American construction companies. And the British, though their appeals are understated, offer what some Bush administration officials argue is the most convincing case: that they shed blood in Iraq as the United States' military ally and remain the most important partner in the occupation of Iraq.

Governments around the world — and the companies whose causes they support — have besieged Washington in a campaign to win a piece of the reconstruction action in Iraq, according to administration officials and lobbyists and companies vying for work. Like prospectors rushing to California, thousands of companies have rushed here to compete for roles in what could become the biggest reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe after World War II. The pleas are being lavished mainly on the Bechtel Corporation, which as the lead contractor in the United States-financed rebuilding effort will be dispensing subcontracts for everything from bridge building to port repairs to restoring water supplies.

In less than three weeks, Bechtel, based in San Francisco and the largest construction company in the country, has been flooded with more than 20,000 e-mail messages, résumés and applications from people and companies around the globe hoping for a chance to win a subcontract, according to Howard Menaker, Bechtel's Washington spokesman. The Web site explaining the subcontracting process says it has had 71,000 hits. "This response is huge," Mr. Menaker said. "Is this normal? Not at all. This is a project that has garnered world attention, and this is extraordinary for us." The would-be subcontractors are not deterred by the fact that Bechtel will only begin setting up makeshift offices in Iraq this week, that security in the country is tenuous and that electricity and running water may be nonexistent.

Moreover, the available money is far short of what reconstruction officials say will be needed. Bechtel's original contract is for no more than $680 million. But independent estimates are that the final cost for an effort of the extent outlined in Bechtel's contract with the United States Agency for International Development will be $20 billion. Bechtel's Washington office has been visited by official delegations from Bulgaria, Romania, the United Arab Emirates, Lithuania, Australia, the United Kingdom, Singapore, the Philippines, Poland, Hungary, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Portugal, Denmark, Turkey, Spain and Germany. Among other pitches, these countries are variously promoting their companies' low labor costs, Arabic speakers and sophisticated technology. "An elaborate courting scene is going on all over Washington with official delegations and corporate officers walking around advertising themselves at public events," said a lobbyist representing some of the companies. "In private they're pulling out their hair because they can't get the right information, and they're afraid they'll miss out on the biggest deal in decades."

Bechtel, which expects to subcontract 75 percent of the reconstruction work, is holding meetings in Washington, London and Kuwait City to help would-be partners apply for the work. The first session is planned for Wednesday at the headquarters here of the United States Agency for International Development. Of all the competitors, British politicians have publicly complained that their companies deserve special treatment because of Britain's involvement in the war. During a visit to Washington in search of subcontracts late last week, Baroness Symons, the British minister of state for trade and investment, said there were no hard feelings about the United States' dispensing the prime contracts only to American companies. The Bush administration cited security considerations and a desire to give out the contracts quickly.

Lady Symons said that she had no objection to the requirement that the British compete on an equal basis with other foreign companies for the subcontracts being given out by Bechtel and others that have won contracts from the Pentagon. "We're not looking for specialized treatment, because we don't feel we need to ask for special treatment," she said. "We're the natural partners." Still, Lady Symons, who is the deputy leader of the House of Lords, said she wanted to make sure the Bush administration's top officials heard the message that the British are excellent partners in peace as well as war, as good at rebuilding nations as they are at fighting terrorists. She met not just with important officials at Bechtel but also with officials close to the company at the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon. "We believed in the war and gave our expertise," she said. "We believe in the reconstruction and offer our expertise." At all the stops, she and the four leaders of British industry who accompanied her made the case that British companies had a long and close relationship with Iraq and Iraqi businesses, from the imperial days in the early 20th century until international sanctions were imposed in the 1990's.

"Our companies built many of the plants in Iraq and know how they operate," said Anthony K. Allum, chairman of the Halcrow Group, a British contractor specializing in transportation and water infrastructures. Mr. Allum is also the head of a new Iraq working group to promote British subcontractors. At the British group's meeting with Bechtel, Mr. Allum slipped officials what he called a select list of some 18 British companies that he considered the top candidates for work in Iraq. Among those listed were Black & Veatch, a firm of consulting engineers that worked on the Karkh water project for western Baghdad and the Basra water supply; Hyder Consulting, which worked on Iraq's port, roads, sewerage and bridges in the 1970s and 1980s, and Vector, consultants and project managers who worked on airports in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. Something clicked. In its first announcement of subcontracts, Bechtel gave Mr. Allum's company a subcontract to provide civil engineering support in Iraq.

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