War on Terrorism

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Contractor Keeps Lights on at Iraq Base

By Army Sgt. Benjamin R Kibbey
Special to American Forces Press Service

Dec. 18, 2009 - Soldiers who haven't deployed before or who only recently arrived here may not give much thought to the constant electricity, hot showers and well-lit avenues. But that kind of thing doesn't happen easily, and it is thanks in no small part to an Iraqi company, Al Harith, that Contingency Operating Base Basra hums along so smoothly. Ismael Shaker, a petrochemical engineer by training, has been running Al Harith since he and his partner founded it 18 years ago.

Shaker started the business with his friend of 32 years when Iraq was rebuilding after the Gulf War. Like many Iraqis, he said, he sees opportunity and hope this time around that never existed before. Looking at the projects he and the engineers and technicians of Al Harith have completed here, it's easy to see the promise for the future of the country that they embody.

The power plant that supplies the Viking and Sandstorm living-support areas was inherited from the British. Its eight generators were at three different locations when the British owned them, including the old British headquarters at the airport hotel.

But because of technical problems, the British couldn't get them to work properly. The computerized system that synchronizes the generators required a password, and the Italian company that sold them the units wasn't cooperative.

When Al Harith first took over the generators at Camp Abunaji, Shaker saw an additional problem. When the Al Harith engineers looked at the system, they realized the generators had no manifolds to prevent air bubbles in the fuel line. So Shaker had the manifolds created in one of his workshops. It didn't solve the entire problem, but may have prevented quite a few future ones, he said.

When it came time to install the generators near Logistics Support Area Viking, Al Harith was able to contact the Italian company and found out the agreement necessitating the password had expired. So, with a little technical acumen, Al Harith's engineers cracked the system and were able to set it up to operate as intended.

"This was a big challenge for us, because when you are dealing with software, you must have the know-how and you must have the software," said Mundir Muhammad, chief engineer for the power station. "But fortunately, we can deal with this."

Al Harith employs electrical and mechanical engineers and technicians at the site 24 hours a day to monitor the power output.

With one day off a week and their bunks a few feet from where they work, they have a similar life to the military personnel on the base. Crews of eight to 10 engineers and technicians live at each logistics support area on the base, Shaker said. A support crew from the company headquarters is available for pumping, carpentry and steelwork, Muhammad said.

"I have 30 years experience in power generation in the government and private sector," he said, "so I am familiar with this kind of generator, steam generators, gas turbine: all kinds of power generation types." Still, he added, operating a computerized station of this size was a new experience for some of the engineers.

"[In Iraq], we deal with mainly non-computerized power stations," Muhammad said. "Of course, we have individual diesel generators, computerized also, outside the camp."

Most generators that Jafar Abdullah, an electrical engineer from Basra, has worked on were single generators, though often much larger than the eight that make up the power station here, he said, so the issue of synchronizing generators was a new one for him.

However, the reliance on computers to synchronize and monitor the generators actually simplifies much of the work.

"The design of these generators makes it simpler to get better performance out of them," Abdullah said. The system is almost maintenance-free, Muhammad pointed out. Still, it's important to stay on top of draining water from the system and checking the clarity of the oil.

"We perform preventive maintenance every 250 operating hours," he said. "We stop the generator, change the filter, check the oil and all the other preventive-maintenance items."

If the regularly scheduled service is delayed even a little, it can do irreparable damage to the generators, said Army Staff Sgt. Kris Lemm, contracting office representative of the base mayor's cell, from Browerville, Minn. This is true especially since the base switched to the much less clean-burning JP8 diesel fuel, which can take years off of the projected lifespan of the equipment. The Al Harith engineers take the maintenance schedule very seriously, and the computerized system simplifies this.

"If we need to make service on one of these generators, we don't have to separate the power," Abdullah explained. "It's much simpler."

It doesn't hurt that one of the eight generators by itself can produce more power than is needed for the current load. This means that only two generators are required – the second to keep power going while the other is serviced.

Now that the generators are set up and functioning, plans are in the works to power additional parts of the base from the one station, Muhammad said. Even when the area powered by the generators is expanded to include the nearby post exchange complex, he said, the one generator still won't pass 40 percent.

"We now have steady power, and we made the calculations, and I think we will achieve it," he said.

Lemm, who has spent 15 of his 22 years in the military as an instructor at the regional training site for maintenance at Camp Ripley, Minn., has high praise for the work Al Harith does.

"I taught [ranging from] small-arms to rebuilding engines to rebuilding tanks to doing fire-control systems repair," Lemm said, "and none of that helped me as much as these guys did on teaching me on what they do." Lemm represents Al Harith's contract through the joint contracting command for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Water, power and fuel covers a lot of work all over this [base]," he said. "On average, I get a list of about 50 different things that they have fixed for Task Force Safe every day."

The difference Shaker has made here is obvious at every turn, Lemm said, noting that the base used to be very dark.

"Now, he takes care of putting light everywhere," Lem said. "This was a very unorganized and unsafe [base], and they go every single place and rewire all the unsafe things.

"It's a long list of everything they do," he continued. "Where there is no heat, they put heat; where there is no air conditioning, they put air conditioning; where there is need of more fuel tanks because they have added more stuff, he has his welding team making more fuel tanks every day."

With years of experience behind him and years of work ahead of him, Shaker takes all the compliments with an easy smile.

He said he expects things to truly stabilize in Iraq in three years, and his fatigued, but calm, eyes lighted up when Lemm mentioned how many Iraqis Al Harith employs here.

"Over 460 workers are busy all the day," Shaker said with a smile. "And that's good. That's very good."

(Army Sgt. Benjamin R Kibbey serves in Multinational Division South.)

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