For Water Truck 103, a Perilous Path to the End

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

WITH CONVOY 77, Iraq -- A few miles west of Baghdad, a brand-new water truck backed gingerly off a flatbed truck and down a makeshift dirt ramp, completing its 7,000-mile journey from a factory in Texas to a government ministry in Iraq.

Considering the enormous effort the United States had made to get it to its destination, there was not much celebration among the small crowd of Iraqis who looked on as the truck was driven away. Nor was there any particular joy among the guards and drivers who had delivered the truck.

For them, it was just another job that had brought them up the highway from the Persian Gulf, through the austere desert of southern Iraq and the fertile farmlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Along the way, they had seen flocks of sheep and camels, escorted by ancient-looking men in red checked kaffiyahs and white dishdashas; barefoot children running up to the side of the road and waving for something to eat; crude mud houses that looked as timeless as the land itself. What they did not see were the men with fingers wrapped around the triggers of assault rifles.

Since the 2003 invasion, the U.S. government has allocated more than $20 billion to rebuild Iraq. The massive program, which ultimately benefits both the people with nothing and the people with nothing but guns, is actually a huge number of smaller tasks that begin with a decision by leaders in Washington. With the signing of an executive order, a complex chain of events is set in motion that, if all goes as planned, brings things from America to Iraq.

First, taxpayer dollars are transformed into trucks, toolboxes, building supplies, arms, ammunition, boots and uniforms, X-ray machines and hospital beds that are carried to Iraq mostly by an army of civilians -- inventory managers, stevedores, truck drivers and private security contractors -- whose largely unseen role in the war can be as dangerous as a soldier's.

This is the story of a tiny piece of that effort -- the 400-mile journey of a brand-new water truck from Umm Qasr, Iraq's main seaport on the Persian Gulf, to the Baghdad Water Directorate west of the capital. It was there that the men with guns were waiting.

Umm Qasr

The dusty white Klein K-250SS water truck with "103" written in red marker on its windshield sat on the back of a red flatbed truck in a yard in Umm Qasr, tied down with chains for the final leg of its journey.

Truck 103 began its life in Jacksonville, Tex., at the manufacturing plant of Klein Products Inc. It is valued at $120,707 and carries about 2,500 gallons of water, a useful purpose in a country where drinkable water can be scarce.

The truck wended its way by ship to the port of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where it was loaded with 26 other water trucks onto another long, black ship called the Strong American. From there, it moved up the Persian Gulf and through a short, artificial channel into the port of Umm Qasr, where it arrived on Feb. 25.

Umm Qasr, a charmless place with a skyline dominated by gray, blue and yellow cranes and rusting warehouses, is controlled by Shiite Muslims, the dominant sectarian group in southern Iraq. Many of the steel containers stacked around the port bear the logo IRISL -- Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

"God knows what they're bringing in here," Lt. Col. Jose Velazquez said of the country's Iranian neighbors as he drove around the port on a 108-degree afternoon. "There's no doubt in my mind that we have people with bad intentions in the port. But in the time I've been here, we haven't had any major issues."

American items coming into Umm Qasr move through a web of government agencies, contractors and subcontractors. At the top is Velazquez, with the Army Corps of Engineers' Gulf Region Division Project and Contracting Office, which is responsible for overseeing reconstruction efforts in Iraq. It contracts out the delivery of goods to a Kuwaiti company called PWC Logistics. PWC in turn coordinates among local ship captains and truck drivers who ultimately carry and deliver the items, and the private security contractors who protect them.

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