By Norris Jones
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 16, 2007 - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing 541 projects valued at $2 billion in a variety of areas in Iraq, including renovating hospitals and schools, installing new water and sewer lines, electrical generation, new water and wastewater treatment plants, bridges and road paving. In the past three years, more than 3,700 projects, valued at $5.6 billion, have been completed.
Namir El Akabi, chief executive officer of ALMCO Group, which has 6,500 Iraqis on its payroll, said his firm has been involved with both new construction and refurbishment.
"We're the largest Iraqi-owned company doing this kind of work. We have completed about 80 projects, both small and large. The U.S.-funded projects have been the main engine for employment within Iraq. This work has allowed Iraq to survive, because without these strategic projects things would have been much worse. It would have been a complete disaster."
His firm has been working for three years on the $50 million R3 water treatment plant in eastern Baghdad, which will provide 25 million gallons daily of potable water. "Water is the essence of life. We'll finish that project in January, and its impact on Sadr City's standard of living will be dramatic," Akabi said.
Akabi said he is proud to point out that his workers are being paid some of the highest salaries in Iraq. "The secret to our success is honesty in execution, quality production, and looking after our Iraqi employees," he said. He noted that at the conclusion of every project, 20 percent of the profits are distributed to his Iraqi crew. "That helps with motivation. They know they are part of the company. And that's why we have been able to execute so many projects in such a short time," he said. "I look after our Iraqi employees, and they produce."
Akabi grew up in Iraq and left at age 10. He returned to Baghdad in 2003 and started his company with five employees. "It was a dream of mine to come back," he said.
He noted that most Middle Eastern countries don't have the natural resources his homeland possesses. "They don't have water; they don't have oil; they don't have minerals. Iraq has everything."
He added that he hopes that someday soon, Iraq will become the next Dubai, which is prosperous and secure. He said he's often asked when Iraq will be secure and safe. He said he answers, "I don't know. But we have to keep going. We have to keep going down that road to rebuild Iraq, to establish democracy and freedom. Things have improved tremendously."
He pointed out that last year his company had a terrorist incident every week -- an attack on one of its convoys or at a project site, or the kidnapping of an employee. "For the past two months, I don't remember one incident where a fatality happened," he said. "The Iraqi people are fed up with all this blood, all this terrorism, all these people coming from the outside and dictating how we should think, what is right and what is wrong. The Iraqis are an intelligent people by nature, and the minority have been misguided, misguided by other countries and by other ideologies such as al Qaeda, which is wrong by any standard."
He said that people today, for the most part, can go about their normal life activities. "I'm optimistic. During the last three or four months, I've seen changes. In 2006, when things got really bad, we were all very depressed. We couldn't see hope. But we had to keep telling ourselves there is hope. Now I actually see hope. I can see it with my eyes; I can feel it. Today, hope is becoming a reality."
(Norris Jones works for the Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)