BUREAUCRACY IS hampering the British Army's efforts to hand reconstruction work in southern Iraq over to American contractor Bechtel, military sources said this week.
Bechtel has a £415M contract with American overseas aid agency USAID to rebuild infrastructure in Iraq.
It is in charge of reconstruction work in the southern cities of Basra and Umm Qasr now that the British army has restored order and carried out basic repairs.
British army sources said last week that Bechtel had to go through a long process of identifying projects and then obtaining USAID approval before it could start work.
'Because they're spending someone else's money there will be checks and approvals processes, so it is going to take time, ' said Major Jeremy Holman, who led efforts to restore power in Umm Qasr.
'A lot of people would slate them and say they have been very slow. But the war only started two months ago. No-one expected things to move as fast as they have, ' he added.
As a result there has been a hiatus between the handover of key locations from the army to Bechtel.
But Iraqi engineers in the southern cities of Basra and Umm Qasr are frustrated at the slow pace of the Bechtel operation. This impression is not helped by the fact that the company is still working from a base in neighbouring Kuwait.
A Kuwait-based Bechtel spokesman this week denied that delivery of repair services was slow. 'We are running well ahead of schedule. Remember our contract was only signed six weeks ago and we already have 90 senior engineers on the ground, ' said the spokesman.
Bechtel said it did not want to rush in to work before it was properly prepared. 'Before any of this work can begin we need to assemble the best team we can, ' he said. 'Assessing a nation's infrastructure needs would normally take months.
But here we are doing this in just days.'
Until now Iraqi engineers in the south have worked with locally based Royal Engineers units based in the field to restore power, water and other infrastructure to pre-war levels.
That has worked well for the Iraqis who have been able to call on the Army for help 24 hours a day.
Now the infrastructure has been returned to its pre-war condition, the Royal Engineers have handed full control back to the Iraqis, who will have to liaise with Bechtel for improvements.
'Bechtel has been to see us every day for the last week, and every day we have told them we need more diesel. But it has not arrived, ' said the plant manager at Umm Qasr power station.
The Royal Engineers have also expressed doubts about the level of experience of some Bechtel engineers in working in such a shattered environment.
'It's been a rapid learning curve for them. When they first arrived they wanted to set about doing everything to US standards, ' said Holman.
'They're spending someone else's money, so fine. But do they think the Iraqi people are going to work to US standards?
It's never going to happen.'
The Royal Engineers have kept Bechtel engineers closely in touch with work they have been doing, and what should be given the highest priority.
They have also stressed to Bechtel the role that British construction firms can play in developing the infrastructure.
'The national grid, the water systems, the basic infrastructure is all British, ' said Lieutenant Colonel Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, who was commanding officer of the military works force responsible for design and supervision of reconstruction.
'You get quite nostalgic - it's all British stuff built 30 years ago, ' said Hunter. 'So we know what to do with it now.'
Number one priority is to rebuild the 400kV power distribution system. This recommendation was made to Bechtel last month.
'Most of the power grid is in poor condition. Where you would normally have six feeds for reliability they have one, ' said Hunter. 'Repairs are often carried out by clamping cables together simply because they have no cable jointing kits.'
The water distribution network also needs a major upgrade.
'In Basra the system suffers from severe low pressure, so the locals solve this either by putting on back pumps to suck it out of the mains leading to negative pressure in the network, or by simply going round and shooting the transmission mains to get water for irrigation, ' said Captain Stuart Bage of the military works force responsible for water development Upgrading the network is a massive task, with the Iraqi water board designing for 400litres/person/day.