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With $18 billion earmarked for reconstruction programs in Iraq, one of the biggest challenges for U.S. officials has been developing a contracting system that simultaneously includes Iraqi firms, tracks huge amounts of cash and ensures projects are actually completed.

More than 60 percent of the contracts go to Iraqi firms, officials said. Because of the problems in infrastructure, banking and security, the system has been confusing to many prospective bidders.

In hopes of clearing up some of the confusion and giving a leg-up to local workmen, officials from the Iraq Reconstruction Program held a bidding conference last weekend in Baghdad.

Some 350 Iraqi contractors attended the event, where they met representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Project and Contracting Office and the Joint Contracting Command.

“We want a fair and open competition, and I’d hope that’s what you want as well,” Brig. Gen. William H. McCoy Jr., the Corps of Engineers’ Gulf Region commander, told those in attendance.

“Over 60 percent of the contracts are being performed by Iraqi or Arab firms. We believe the vast majority [of future projects] will be built by Iraqi or Arab firms,” he said.

According to interviews with officials earlier this summer, more than 2,500 reconstruction projects — ranging from schools and power plants to police stations — are under way or have been completed. Of the $18 billion budget, some $7 billion is for security of project sites and contract workers.

Some Iraqi contractors, including two interviewed this summer, say the bidding process is difficult for a variety of reasons: The paperwork is dense and complicated; their work force turns over at the drop of a hat; insurgents threaten their lives for taking American money.

The security front is a matter of its own, Corps of Engineers officials said. But getting the Iraqi and other Arab country contractors to understand the bidding system is something that can be addressed.

So, they hold conferences similar to the one at the Baghdad Convention Center. And they’ve established a Web site, www.iraqibusinesscenter.org, that provides specific information on bidding procedures and myriad other issues.

The point is to allow construction firms to “get on with the business of rebuilding,” Gloria Martinez, a contracting official with the Gulf Region District, said in a Corps of Engineers press release.

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