A small team of North Carolina researchers employed last week is being asked to help launch a wide array of projects to help Iraq regain its footing.

The nonprofit organization RTI International was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development to build consensus among Iraqis in designing systems of local government in each of the country's 18 provinces.

At $7.9 million, the deal is dwarfed by the $680 million contract awarded today to the Bechtel Group for capital improvements throughout the country. But officials said much of Bechtel's job, and other contract work ranging from improving schools to advancing agricultural resources, will rely on RTI's groundwork.

"RTI is the linchpin, the catalysts, the enablers," said Chris Milligan, senior project officer with USAID, which is handling allied reconstruction efforts for the newly formed Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid. "Their work will make sure resources meet the priorities of everyday Iraqis and involve them in defining what their priorities in reconstruction are."

An advance team of RTI researchers plan to arrive in Kuwait this week and enter Iraq soon after to survey the population. The results of those surveys will guide companies like Bechtel and others in determining where resources should go, Milligan said. Then RTI will concentrate on helping Iraqis create representative systems of local government. Staffing will steadily increase to about 150 to 200 expatriate and 300 Iraqi staff members, Ron Johnson, vice president for international development for the firm, said.

"You certainly can't disguise the fact that this is a challenging project," Johnson said from his office in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The firm has worked in several countries trying to build local governments from the ground up, including Indonesia and El Salvador while its civil war was still underway. According to those familiar with RTI, Iraqis should get used to holding community meetings, which the firm organized often in Indonesia.

"In Indonesia, RTI in one year helped facilitate over 100,000 meetings between communities and their newly elected officials in one province," Milligan said. "So I have seen their expertise in exactly this environment. Indonesia was coming out of three decades under an authoritarian regime very similar in some ways to Iraq."

Instead of starting by schooling Iraqis in big-picture concepts like budgeting and the electoral process, the firm plans to start small. After conducting its surveys, it hopes to immediately act on some of the local requests to establish trust and try to demonstrate that concerns will be heeded. Johnson gave one example: If a local population tells them it wants a school repaired as its first priority, they'll try to speed construction teams to the site to demonstrate that participation at the local level can lead to quality-of-life improvements.

One of the challenges, however, will be establishing enough trust among the population. The first impressions made by a small North Carolina firm coming in to help establish local governance could meet resistance, Johnson acknowledged.

"We think we may very well have to overcome the sense of being outsiders," Johnson said, adding the firm's hiring of local Iraqi staff will be crucial.

Aside from small advance teams, USAID staffers and its contractors have been limited to entering the southern provinces of Iraq -- the only area deemed safe so far by the U.S. military for civilian access. Eventually, USAID and its contractors centered on the reconstruction effort plan to set up headquarters in Baghdad with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid, the group overseeing USAID's projects.

"We're ready, we're poised, but obviously you need people and money and security to get things done," said Joanne Giardano, a spokeswoman for USAID.

The delays have generated criticism of coalition reconstruction efforts, and USAID's contracting process has also drawn fire from those charging that it has been veiled in secrecy and has favored firms with connections to the U.S. government. USAID had limited the number of companies allowed to compete for the initial reconstruction contracts under an exemption in its regulations. Bypassing the normal competitive bidding process was a necessary move, officials said, because delays could have hamstrung the foreign aid program.

A group of senators last week proposed legislation that would require USAID to explain how it selected the companies allowed to bid, and two top House Democrats called for an official investigation.

Milligan said in other foreign aid situations the process of granting contracts and assessing needs has taken up to a year -- a period he said USAID couldn't afford in this case.

"This is a new thing to start reconstruction simultaneously with relief," Giardano said. "Sometimes you have a phase just going in on the purely humanitarian side. But we're moving faster."