Local contractors building schools, economy

25 Jun 2003 | Army Spc. Melissa Walther

The smell of the smoke and the gaping windows are the only clues that the city's courthouse had been burned and looted after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

However, newly plastered and painted walls are becoming a new legacy of the stronger relationship betweens the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 and local Iraqi contractors.  Inside the courthouse, sunlight bounces off plaster dust in the air and the sound of hammers can still be heard as work, as well as that relationship, continues. 

This scene can be found all over town in municipal buildings and local schools as the business of rebuilding continues.  More than 40 schools have been assessed so far, and 18 have been renovated in the Ad Diwaniyah area so far.

"We do the things like the electrical work and plumbing, then we hire local contractors to do the heavy labor like rebuilding walls," said Petty Officer 1st Class Hector Calderon, a builder with NMCB-4, based in Port Hueneme, Calif.  "It gives the local people jobs they wouldn't normally have, and they're really grateful for the work."

Area contractors involved in the projects hope they continue.

"It's my city, I want it to be good," said Alaa Abdul Hassan, head contractor on the courthouse project. "After three decades of neglect we're finally fixing things."

According to Lt. Brandon Harding, chaplain with NMCB-4, the contractors are paid using seized Iraqi funds.

"It's their money anyway," he said.  "It only makes sense to use it to help them get back on their feet."

Not only does the money originally come from the Iraqi people, most of the supplies the Seabees provide for the contractors come from government warehouses.

"We found these huge warehouses filled with construction materials like tiles," said Lt. j.g. Juliana Strieter, a project chief with NMCB-4.  "There was a Ba'ath party member guarding the place and we just walked up and said 'thanks for keeping this safe for us.'  We call the place the Home Depot now."

However, only some of the materials used in these rebuilding projects come from the warehouses.  According to Strieter, the contractors are given the money for the projects and then buy the materials they will need locally.

"It's not just about rebuilding the buildings," Strieter said.  "It's about building their economy.  We not only give the contractors jobs, we give the suppliers jobs, too."

While working with the local work force provides a good boost to the economy, it also presents some problems, mostly with communication.

"While a lot of the contractors speak fairly good English, we found out that we have to really specify what we want," Strieter said.  "The time we gave out a contract for new windows and got windows without glass taught us that."

According to Harding, that was the only major problem they have encountered working with the locals.

"Some of them are really dedicated to what they are doing," said Harding.  "It's traditional here for the employee to fix lunch for his employer to show his gratitude for the work.  We get lunch all the time."