Construction Woes Add to Fears at Embassy in Iraq

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

U.S. diplomats in Iraq, increasingly fearful over their personal safety after recent mortar attacks inside the Green Zone, are pointing to new delays and mistakes in the U.S. Embassy construction project in Baghdad as signs that their vulnerability could grow in the months ahead.

A toughly worded cable sent from the embassy to State Department headquarters on May 29 highlights a cascade of building and safety blunders in a new facility to house the security guards protecting the embassy. The guards' base, which remains unopened today, is just a small part of a $592 million project to build the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

The main builder of the sprawling, 21-building embassy is First Kuwaiti General Trade and Contracting Co., a Middle Eastern firm that is already under Justice Department scrutiny over alleged labor abuses. First Kuwaiti also erected the guard base, prompting some State Department officials in Washington and Baghdad to worry that the problems exposed in the camp suggest trouble lurking ahead for the rest of the embassy complex.

The first signs of trouble, according to the cable, emerged when the kitchen staff tried to cook the inaugural meal in the new guard base on May 15. Some appliances did not work. Workers began to get electric shocks. Then a burning smell enveloped the kitchen as the wiring began to melt.

All the food from the old guard camp -- a collection of tents -- had been carted to the new facility, in the expectation that the 1,200 guards would begin moving in the next day. But according to the cable, the electrical meltdown was just the first problem in a series of construction mistakes that soon left the base uninhabitable, including wiring problems, fuel leaks and noxious fumes in the sleeping trailers.

"Poor quality construction . . . life safety issues . . . left [the embassy] with no recourse but to shut the camp down, in spite of the blistering heat in Baghdad," the May 29 cable informed Washington.

Such challenges with construction contracts inside the fortified enclave known as the Green Zone reflect the broader problems that have thwarted reconstruction efforts throughout war-torn Iraq.

The "fairly serious problems" noted in the cable indicate that First Kuwaiti's work fails to meet basic safety standards, said an administration official who was not authorized to speak to the news media. But the State Department's Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which oversees construction of the new embassy, has kept a "close hold" on the project, making it difficult for anyone else in the government to gauge progress. "We are suspecting we will find the same issues in the new embassy," resulting in months of delays, the official said.

The embassy cable prompted a stinging response from James L. Golden, OBO's managing director for the embassy project. In a cable dated June 8, he berated personnel in Baghdad for sending their message over an open embassy system, rather than keeping the complaints in-house. He defended First Kuwaiti and accused the embassy and KBR -- a Texas-based company that runs many facilities in Iraq and discovered the wiring problems -- of making false claims to deflect attention from their own errors.

The guard base "has been constructed to the approved design specifications," Golden wrote, adding that "none of the issues raised in the cable has merit" and that "it appears [the embassy] and KBR simply do not want to operate the camp for other reasons."

KBR said its concerns were justified. "Safety remains KBR's top priority," said Heather L. Browne, the firm's director of corporate communications. "Our initial assessments determined that the issues identified were not linked to KBR's work and in fact inspection reports from the [State Department] confirm that KBR was not responsible for the safety issues identified."

Tensions Over Deadline

The tough exchanges between Baghdad and Washington reflect some of the tensions as the State Department rushes to complete the embassy this year. Originally, the new guard base -- estimated to cost about $22 million -- was due for completion in January, but deadlines were missed. OBO certified that the camp "meets and exceeds" its contract requirements in a letter signed April 14 and provided by First Kuwaiti. The new delay in moving the guards may affect plans to build temporary housing for maintenance workers and contractors hired to help run the new embassy, which is scheduled to be completed in the fall.

An embassy spokesman declined to comment, referring calls to Washington. Pat Kennedy, director of the State Department's Office of Management Policy, said that the embassy cable was a "frank discussion" of its concerns but that the embassy now "is satisfied with the process we have put in place to address these issues." He said he was "not prepared to make the large leap" that concerns about the guard base might also apply to the larger embassy project.

Retired Maj. Gen. Charles E. Williams, the director of OBO, who was formerly with the Army Corps of Engineers, declined to be interviewed. "It is internal business," said his special assistant, Phyllis A. Patten-Breeding.

First Kuwaiti's labor practices are already under investigation by the Justice Department amid allegations that foreign employees were brought into Iraq under false pretenses -- such as being told that they were to work in Dubai -- and then forbidden to leave because the company had confiscated their passports. First Kuwaiti has called those accusations "ludicrous."

Samir Ida, the company's construction director, said that the guard base was completed to "all specifications." He provided an e-mail from an OBO official who described it as "one of the better built camps" in Iraq. "The U.S. Embassy is still in the process of being constructed, and while some work remains, First Kuwaiti has not been informed of any issues relating to substandard work," he added.

After the electrical problem was discovered and no quick fix seemed available, the embassy was forced to serve the guards MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) for several days until all the food could be moved back to the old housing, known as Camp Jackson, according to the embassy cable's detailed account. The original plan was for the guards to wait only one or two weeks before the electrical issues were fixed.

But the problems mounted. The 252 prefabricated residential trailers, with either two or three rooms each, filled with formaldehyde fumes. The trailer manufacturer, a Saudi company called Red Sea Housing Services Co., confirmed to the embassy it had used the toxic chemical in preparing the housing. Red Sea told the embassy to keep the windows open and use charcoal in the rooms to absorb the odor, but "the fumes are still prevalent," the cable said.

The embassy cable noted that five people had been identified at various times as the project manager, and that it was all but impossible for embassy officials to obtain information from them, with no one seeming to be in charge. "Two of the project managers have had extremely limited previous project management experience," the cable said. A $500,000 project to install a fire-suppression system appeared to be proceeding without proper supervision, it added.

The saga did not end there, as recounted by the cable in 23 lengthy paragraphs that mixed outrage with dense bureaucratic language.

First, KBR and First Kuwaiti quickly began finger-pointing. KBR electricians determined that the electrical wiring was too small for the load required, but First Kuwaiti electricians -- after initially concurring -- began to balk at the assessment, the cable said.

Then KBR raised new concerns about the grounding and electrical feeds into the facility.

Fire Hazards

The embassy cable noted that there had been at least four fires in dining facilities in Iraq blamed on similar problems. At a May 16 meeting, officials showed photos indicating fire hazards in the dining hall's wiring that were so serious that the few guards who had moved into the base's new residential housing were sent back to Camp Jackson.

"It was unknown as to whether similar wiring was present in the residential trailers," the cable said.

At the meeting, KBR representatives began to express unease about their responsibility and liability in operating and maintaining the base's electrical system. On May 24, OBO declared that the wiring problem had been fixed, but KBR conducted an inspection a day later and said the problems remained. KBR found that the reworked wiring "is still substandard," the cable said. The embassy also said that it believes it has discovered counterfeit wiring, labeled as 10mm when it was actually 6mm.

Meanwhile, on May 18, OBO unexpectedly informed the embassy that it would soon stop maintaining the power stations and water-treatment facilities at the new guard base. The embassy protested that it had limited staff to operate the equipment, which needs to be in operation constantly to avoid costly repairs. First Kuwaiti provided only "minimal spare parts" for the power generators and "less than minimal spare parts" for the water-treatment plant, the cable said.

Finally, on May 25, a KBR hazardous-materials expert discovered that all 10 generators had developed leaks. The fuel tanks were installed without corrosion protection or leak detectors, and fuel had begun to saturate the soil around the tanks. The cable said that Teflon tape designed for water pipes had been used on the fuel tanks, and that such tape "will dissolve on contact with diesel fuel." KBR refused to operate the power generators unless its liability was waived.

The result, the cable concluded, is that the guards will continue to stay in "tents and deplorable living conditions." Officials now say that the guard base will not be ready until Aug. 1.

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