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Contractors struggle with Iraqi violence

Faced with more targeted attacks and hostage-taking by Iraqi insurgents, many wary foreign contractors in Iraq said on Thursday they were struggling to do their work as "no-go" areas expanded.
/ Source: Reuters

Faced with more targeted attacks and hostage-taking by Iraqi insurgents, many wary foreign contractors in Iraq said on Thursday they were struggling to do their work as "no-go" areas expanded.

Publicly, most contractors repeat U.S. government statements that billions of dollars in reconstruction work is going ahead as planned. But privately they say work is being seriously affected by the surge in violence that has targeted foreign civilians as well as U.S. forces.

"It's a daily, often hourly, assessment in terms of where we can and can't go," said one major contractor, who asked not to be identified for fear of making their staff a target.

Confirming growing danger for foreign workers in Iraq, a Palestinian contractor from Jerusalem working for North Carolina-based company Research Triangle International was abducted on Thursday by Iraqi insurgents.

RTI vice president Sally Johnson said the nonprofit firm was working hard to secure his release and told Reuters the company was taking additional measures to tighten security for their other workers in Iraq, including 200 expatriates.

A trade fair planned for Baghdad this week to tout Iraqi business opportunities was canceled because of security concerns and many companies are quietly moving foreign staff to safer, neighboring countries.

Some contractors said they were keeping only essential staff in Iraq, taking advantage of video conferencing instead of direct meetings and transferring more work to Iraqi staffers.

"Obviously it's intense and we are taking all the prudent security measures. It's definitely having an impact on our work," said one contractor, adding that not most of its employees were not leaving their heavily fortified housing.

Challenging environment
Contractors stressed not all of Iraq was affected and rebuilding projects were going on in many areas, although at a slower pace. San Francisco engineering giant Bechtel, which has worked in many of the world's trouble spots, said its infrastructure work was going ahead as planned.

"We knew it would be a challenging environment and we are taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our personnel," said Bechtel spokeswoman Alison Abbott.

American and a couple of British firms make up the bulk of prime contractors but sub-contractors comprise many nationalities, from Korean and Japanese to Saudi companies.

Civilians working in Iraq have increasingly become targets and last week four security contractors were killed and their mutilated bodies dragged through Falluja. A British civilian was kidnapped this week in the southern Iraqi town of Nassiriya and three Japanese were taken hostage.

Bulgarian freight carrier SO MAT, which has started transport services to companies involved in Iraq reconstruction, said it canceled operations until "peace resumes." One of the company's civilian drivers was killed on Tuesday, when a convoy of six trucks was attacked south of Nassiriya.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, active in Iraq for more than a year, conceded the security environment was having an effect on some of their contractors' work.

"We are confident we will continue to make progress since the Iraqis have a vested interest in all of our projects. We hope to be back to full speed as soon as possible," said USAID spokesman Luke Zahner,

A spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority's contracting body said he did not know of any plans by contractors to pull out of Iraq.

"Nothing has deterred our pace and schedule," said Jonathan Thompson of the CPA's Program Management Office, which oversees projects funded by $18.6 billion in U.S. funds.

Texas company Halliburton, which has lost 30 of its own staff and sub-contractors while working in the Kuwait-Iraq region, voiced concern over the latest violence.

"We are all concerned about the recent incidents in Iraq, and when hostilities intensify, we revise and step up our precautions in support of our security efforts," said company spokeswoman Wendy Hall.