By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
June 18, 2008 - Coalition construction worth about $2.5 billion is under way in Iraq, despite attacks that have injured workers and damaged buildings, development delays caused by land-deed disputes, and low-level corruption. Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, responsible for developing the infrastructure of Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries, is managing more than 300 projects in various phases of completion: 170 under construction, 85 in contract negotiation, and 60 others being handed off to Iraqis.
But as Iraq rebuilds, concerns about site security and worker safety can exact hidden costs, said Navy Capt. John D. Rice, engineering staff director for Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, or MNSTC-I.
"We've had workers injured, we've had sites attacked, we've had things damaged," he said in a conference call this morning. "So it is an issue, it is a cost."
Security threats around construction sites can cause employee absenteeism and extend projects beyond the expected date of completion, Rice said. He added that accessing the site itself can pose a challenge.
"It does impact the timeliness of construction, because sometimes workers are reluctant to come to a site, especially if an operation is ongoing," he said. "But once they get to the site, they're safe, because the contractors do provide security for them."
When awarding contracts, MNSCT-I officials weigh a contractor's success rate in safeguarding its employees as a deciding factor. The command evaluates each bidder on a province-by-province basis, Rice said.
Once a contract is awarded and construction begins, a coalition contracting officer and an Iraqi engineer ensure that workers are performing at a quality commensurate with the purchase price.
To date, construction benchmarks total more than $3.5 billion in completed projects, employing tens of thousands of Iraqis in the process. The finished work includes 860 police stations, border forts and training facilities for the Interior Ministry, and more than 130 installations, support bases and training areas for the Defense Ministry.
One major snag Rice encounters during rebuilding, however, occurs before a single shovel is lifted. "Getting actual land deeds to build these facilities -- regardless of whether I use American money or Iraqi money -- that's been very problematic for me," he said.
A land deed is a legal instrument that ensures a building can be lawfully constructed on a piece of property. Rice characterized the procedure of obtaining a land deed from a landowner in Iraq as an often-frustrating process.
Since coalition and Iraqi partners cannot legally build permanent facilities without a right to the land, workers construct temporary facilities in the interim so the mission can continue, Rice said.
"There's no mission impact, but from a sustainment standpoint, better to get this permanent facility done, and [obtaining] land deeds is really the biggest impact to me," he said. Procuring a deed, he added, frees coalition officials from owing money to a claimant to the property.
At the local level, Rice said, he has noticed tribal leaders attempting to charge contractors permit fees for bringing workers to a site or to access locally based utilities.
"I think it's the culture of the Iraqis that that's how they've done business throughout their history," he said. "We are abiding by the federal acquisition regulations. We're not paying kickbacks. We're not paying bribes.
"But is it happening at a lower level, at a subcontractor tier-level within a contract that we have?" he said. "It probably is."
Rice said he considers it a positive indicator that this brand of corruption is limited to the lowest levels and has not spilled into the higher echelons of Iraqi government.
"If you're talking corruption at a high level of government, I haven't seen any of that," he said. "I think the Iraqi government officials I've dealt with are awesome, very patriotic and want to do the right thing for the right reason. They understand the needs for their security forces and the development of them."