Reconstruction tough amid security threats
Stars and Stripes June 9, 2007
Mideast edition, Saturday, June 9, 2007
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ISKAN, Iraq — No one is eager to pave “No Name Road,” a stretch of 5.2 kilometers that takes people from Musayyib to Karbala.
The contract, funded by U.S. military reconstruction money, would pay thousands of dollars to the person who can put 10 centimeters of blacktop on the crumbling road.
But the road has been hit repeatedly by roadside bombs. And so far, soldiers from the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion here have received just one complete bid.
On Sunday, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Andrews, 42, of Dallas, shopped the job around to Iraqi contractors who came to the U.S. base to do business on other matters. A few seemed interested, until they learned that the contractors must provide their own security on the job.
“Now you see what we’re up against,” Andrews told one man who declined to bid after learning his workers would be blacktopping without up-armored Humvees nearby.
This small team of soldiers is up against time, money and war. They are the first and last point of contact for contractors who want a project, the Iraqi government who must show a need for the project, and the U.S. commanders who approve payments.
Andrews and the soldiers he works with sign up potential contractors, review the bids and specs and go out into the surrounding towns to make sure the work warrants payment. Last week, they went out for a final check on an $800,000 water treatment project. Before they were able to judge the work, a sniper tracked them down.
“I was shot at twice,” said Cpl. Gary Sprague, 39, of Circleville, Ohio. One bullet pinged off his turret from about 30 meters away.
If the civil affairs soldiers can’t review the projects, they can’t spread the money. It’s a Catch-22, because they believe spreading the money will boost the local towns’ economies and assuage the violence.
Each Sunday, the team meets with current and potential contractors who wait for hours in the sun for a consultation. Some have existing projects and want to give updates. Others are signing up for the first time and provide a resume and have their picture taken. Everyone wants to barter for more projects, from school renovations to road clearings.
When a project is complete, the contractor comes for payment. An early-morning customer on Sunday was paid more than $100,000 in cash. He smiled as he stuffed the bundled $100 bills into his socks, his jeans and even his T-shirt. The boxy wads showed through the thin shirt, and the soldiers warned him not to leave so exposed. He’d be fine, he said, as long as he could get to his car.
Others come for more complicated reasons. A father and son waited under towels they used as shade to see if the soldiers had any medicines to treat burns. They were victims of a double market bomb four months ago in Hillah, and the father works at the power plant inside FOB Iskan.
Five days ago, the pair ran out of the special gel they rub on their scars, and their local doctor has no replacement. The soldiers went looking for the ointment but found none. They took down names and a phone number to put them in touch with the National Iraqi Assistance Center, a group trying to help victims in Iraq.
The team also tries to use the time to persuade contractors to spread good news about coalition forces. Currently, insurgents are targeting the Americans in the area, and the incidents of violence have risen in recent weeks.
“Someone tried to kill him,” one soldier told a contractor, pointing to Sprague. “If we get killed — no more money.”
Late in the day, the team had to offer an apology to the water treatment project director. His project was the one scheduled for inspection last week, the one where Sprague got shot at. Because the inspection is incomplete, the man must wait for his final $300,000 payment, more than one-third of the contract price.
The water manager looked shocked by the news and asked if everyone was OK. He said he would be at the water plant the next time the soldiers came to inspect his work.