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Rebuilding Iraq may be rewarding but risk remains

News - As terrorist kidnappers increasingly target engineers, is it possible to stay safe? Ian Lawrence reports.

ENGINEERS WORKING to help rebuild Iraq have become targets for terrorists determined to obstruct the reconstruction process, commentators with a close knowledge of Iraq and other politically unstable regions said this week.

Fears for the safety of those involved in the reconstruction of Iraq surfaced following the kidnapping of British civil engineer Ken Bigley with two US colleagues in Baghdad on 16 September. Bigley had been working for Abu Dhabi based construction supply and logistics firm Gulf Supplies & Commercial Services (News last week).

He was still being held captive as NCE went to press, with his kidnappers demanding the release of women held in Iraqi prisons. Hopes for his release rose earlier this week with the intervention of Palestinian leader, and former civil engineer, Yasser Arafat.

The two American hostages have been executed. Another group of kidnappers is holding five Egyptian telecommunications workers.

Terror groups will thrive on the publicity afforded by coverage of Bigley's family's impassioned pleas for his release, a former hostage told NCE.

Banking consultant Peter Shaw, from south Wales, was captured and held for five months in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in 2002.

'One of the objectives of these hostage-takers is to deter people like Ken Bigley from going to Iraq. It seems that they are being reasonably successful and it's tragic for Iraqis who want to improve the state of their country, ' he said.

'Engineers are fundamentally important to the country and its infrastructure so they know precisely what they are doing in targeting these people.

'They have received worldwide recognition and their efforts to dissuade other people from going, sadly, seem to be working.'

Mohammed Khalif Al Derajy backed his view. He works for the Al Kindi Society of Iraqi Engineers, a group keen to see more native engineers working to rebuild the war-torn country, He condemns the terrorists.

'These people are trying to put difficulties into the Iraqi reconstruction programme because they have their own agenda.

'I think these people know what they are doing. Engineers from specific countries are being targeted. There is no doubt that they want to stop the Iraqi reconstruction.'

Despite the dangers, UK workers are still prepared to work in Iraq largely because of the money on offer.

'People are drawn by the idea that they can make fast bucks by going there. There are people who think they can survive six months out there and make a fortune out of it, ' said Government body UK Trade & Investment's Iraq country manager Steve Hogg.

British Consultants & Construction Bureau chief executive Graham Hand said 30 of the organisation's member firms were operating in Iraq.

'By and large our businesses doing the work on the ground are very coy about being named but a number of our bigger contractors are working there.'

He estimated that the number of people employed by these firms in Iraq 'ran into four figures'.

He added that he believed security problems on this scale were currently unique to Iraq.

'The general impression I get is that that the people who work out there get a tremendous sense of achievement from doing something quite important.

'It's not just a contract like any other; they are helping to rebuild a country. There are quite a few people who are willing to go again.'

Hand also predicted that there would be no evacuation of British firms from the area as a result of hostage taking.

'People are very watchful but I get the impression that the companies that have gone out there are determined to finish the job.'

Shaw confirmed that the high salaries on offer are a major consideration when individuals contemplate working in dangerous areas.

Since his release, after spending four months chained by the neck to a wall in a tiny underground cell (NCE 28 November 2002), he has worked in Ethiopia and Kazakhstan.

'Certainly one of the inducements is that one is paid a larger salary than would have been paid in the UK. But it's also very enjoyable, ' he said.

'I understand that Ken Bigley has been working in Arab countries for some time and he obviously enjoys it.

'There's a sense of reward.

It's 100 times more difficult to get things done in unfamiliar surroundings. You have to work very hard to achieve the objectives you are supposed to, but having won a battle or two the highs are very much higher, ' he pointed out.

'There will always be people willing to do it and Mr Bigley seems like an adventurous character.'

British firms Amec and Costain have staff in Iraq.

A Costain spokesman said staff security was paramount and was regularly reviewed.

But those with knowledge of work in politically unstable regions warned that security could never be guaranteed.

Engineers disaster relief charity RedR's security programme manager Mark Allison has advised individuals and companies heading for the Middle East.

He says using trained local drivers, avoiding high-risk areas, varying routes and time of departure to and from work could deter potential kidnappers. But he said nothing could completely ensure safety.

'There are preventative measures you can take but none of them will guarantee that a determined kidnapper will be prevented from successfully carrying out their mission.'

Shaw also suspected that more could be done, but agreed that the situation would remain dangerous.

'They could impose curfews and make people live in secured areas with soldiers patrolling but there's nothing really that can guarantee security in a country like Iraq. It is a very bleak picture, ' he concluded.

Latest Foreign Office advice states that contractors working on reconstruction projects are under threat and adds that even essential travel to Iraq should be delayed if possible.

It urges British nationals to remain within guarded areas, avoid unprotected travel, or leave.

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