At Large

In Hot Water

A cool day in Baghdad is merely scalding. Then there are the French reminders...

By 7.13.05

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BAGHDAD -- One morning late last month, as I was coming back from breakfast, I ran into fellow employees Aziz, Ali, and Hassem who were just arriving for work.

From Aziz I learned that the previous night there was a pitched battle between insurgents and U.S. troops out near where he lives. I have no details of how many were involved, but Aziz said that until an Abrams tank arrived on the scene the American troops were being shoved around pretty badly. Ultimately, the Americans, at the invitation of Aziz, went up on the roof of his house from where they were able to rain fire down on the enemy until the battle was stabilized.

Aziz told our guys that all the local Iraqis out there are pro-American and they should feel welcome to go on rooftops anytime they need to. He also told them all the locals have guns, which they will be only too happy to use against the terrorists.

The whole thing lasted an hour. It won't ever be mentioned in the media because they stay hunkered down in town, and have no idea what is going on out there. There are apparently quite a few skirmishes of this kind going on all the time that we never read about. I hear about them from the people in whose neighborhoods they take place.

THE DESIGNING AND ENGINEERING of 400kV electrical substations is the major leagues of the electric work being done in postwar Iraq. These projects, which go for $30 to $50 million a copy, are attracting the elite and famous among the giants of electrical equipment manufacturing. Siemens, Westinghouse, ABB, General Electric, Schneider, Mitsubishi, and all the rest are here in force. Since there are quite a few projects open for bidding, no doubt the giants are looking at the possibility of making a single gutsy offer that has the potential to win them all the contracts in one fell swoop.

One of the companies in the running is a pretty substantial French electrical manufacturer called Areva. I am opposed to doing anything with the French. Others don't agree with me and are pressuring me to join with them to make a team offer for the project. My opinion is that, after winning the war, paying with the lives of 1,700 soldiers (so far) and having thousands more wounded, providing $18 billion to rebuild Iraq, and contributing close to 100% of the effort to establish democracy, the U.S. Government will never award one or all of these projects, and the associated $50 million each, to a French company.

President Bush would be impeached!

A FEW DAYS AGO I WAS FILLING out a third copy of an application for my DoD badge. Dyno Corp, the U.S. contractor in charge, lost the first two. Obviously, one of the questions asked is my birthdate. I happen to have been born on July 14. For many years a few people would give a knowing glance and mumble, "Oh yes, Bastille Day!" That never bothered me but now it does. I don't want anything about me to be associated with the French.

What might be equally bad, is that July 14 was also the date of the founding of Saddam's Baath Party in 1958. Until we came along it was a mighty big deal in Iraq! There is a bridge over the Tigris called the 14th of July Bridge.

I can't decide if I feel worse about the French connection, or the Saddam connection. Both seem about equally rotten to me.

When I get back to the States I will go see a judge to have my birth certificate changed. If you can change your name, one should be able to do the same with a birth date.

THE POST OFFICE WHERE I PICK UP our mail is located in one of Saddam's former palaces. Some of the building took a fair amount of bomb damage during the war, but the part assigned to the mail department seems to be okay. It is terribly lit, however.

The ceiling at the entrance to the post office is about 20 or 25 feet high. And right up there on the ceiling, as if Saddam had brought Michelangelo out of retirement, is a vast painting that depicts a "crushing defeat of U.S. Forces" by Saddam's army in the 1991 Gulf War. None of the many American soldiers working below even seem to notice it's there.

LAST MONTH I WROTE (see item #6) that one of the unreported improvements in Iraq was the resumption of commercial aviation between Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. My major pronouncement didn't result in a flood of stories on the subject in the N.Y. Times, but, of course, it feels no urge to report any successes in Iraq.

Later, however, I was watching the news conference involving President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Jafari. Lo and behold, right in the middle of it, as President Bush was talking about the improvements in Iraq, he spoke about the dramatic "increase in commercial air traffic in and out of BIAP"! If the Times expects to get the low-down on Iraq, it should have its local stringer give me a call.

SINCE MY ARRIVAL IN BAGHDAD I have been mystified by how hot the "cold water" faucets run. Except in the middle of the night when the cold water might be charitably described as merely scalding, the normal flow of water is untouchable.

Leaving your hands under the "cold water" would result in serious burns and would be an ideal opportunity for some American ambulance chaser to come over here and start a class action lawsuit. If a cup of hot coffee dropped in your lap at McDonalds can get you a million dollar award, the potential here is much greater. Since there seemed no solution to our hot "cold water," I became convinced that someone, either inadvertently, or intentionally, had switched or reversed the source of the water.

A few days ago I learned the real reason for the problem. It is that our "cold water tank" sits on the roof of the house in the blistering daytime sun. The temperature at lunchtime these days runs around 125 degrees. Our operations manager says he should have put a roof over the tank more than a year ago, but hasn't gotten to it yet. "I'll do it in the next few days," he told me. Sure.

I WENT TO A LUNCH hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce. It was at the Al Rasheed hotel and attended by 120 Iraqi and American/British businessmen and women. The last one attracted 80, so the trend is improving.

The featured speaker, an Iraqi businessman, was quite good. He raised several issues that, frankly, I'd never thought of. He said one of the major injuries to Iraq from the embargo was that it put the country about 15 years behind the rest of the world in "computerization." And, he emphasized that we need to think of that word in its most expansive set of definitions. Until the U.S. came along, Iraq was simply in a different century when it came to the Internet, CADD, microprocessors, software, programming and all the rest of the things we have grown accustomed to. He estimates it will take another six to eight years for Iraq to catch up in this area.

He warned, however, that even that estimate maybe wildly optimistic unless the country is able to rid itself of the rotten-to-the-core corruption and bribery that permeates all aspects of life here. There is no transaction in Iraq too small to be free of corruption. People bribe everyone from the policeman on the beat, to cabinet ministers, to the local shoeshine man. It is the national sport! It is such a way of life here (and in the rest of the Middle East) that anytime you try to engage an Iraqi in a conversation about this, he will tell you not to waste time -- his and yours.

The speaker also emphasized the desperate need for privatization in Iraq. Too much in this country is owned or controlled by the government and the government has played a major historic role in the redistribution of wealth.

I illustrate this with an example from our own company. Last month one of our surveyors left us to go work for one of the government ministries at one quarter the salary we were paying him. His job, and it is indeed a fairly junior position, involves the gift to him from the government of a piece of land, a housing allowance, a home building allowance and an endless list of other favors and handouts this guy has so far done nothing to deserve. That is a pretty standard "compensation package." This has been the way the country and its many tribes have functioned for about a half century.

In this respect, Iraq has a long way to go to fix any of these problems -- pretty much as East Germany did and it's not out of the woods yet.

AS I LOOK DOWN THE ROAD and try to imagine what a future Iraq will look like, I am puzzled that some of the big U.S. real estate investors have not yet dropped anchor here. Foreigners can't own land here today, but they should be getting prepared for the future. Iraq is probably the most secular of the Middle East countries and the one most likely to embrace a U.S.-style investment climate, with U.S.-style investments such as gambling casinos and vacation resorts.

Iraq today is like Las Vegas in 1950 when Bugsy Siegel arrived. There is a huge opportunity to be the first on the scene with a big idea and a big vision. Maybe Donald Trump is overly preoccupied with his television career right now. Trump seems too wrapped up in stuff that might tickle his ego rather than filling his wallet even though, from what I read, his wallet is in need of a refill.

Except for a couple of months a year, when even superb air-conditioning may not be sufficient, Baghdad and the surrounding area could be a fantastic gambling casino/vacation resort. Steve Wynn, are you out there?

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