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News | Nov. 23, 2009

Iraqi engineers prepare to work independently

By Sgt. Benjamin R. Kibbey , MND-South

A worker at the Anzio logistics site on Contingency Operating Base Basra, Iraq, bends rebar to be used in the placement of housing trailers for U.S. troops Nov. 14. The work at the site is being overseen and planned by an Iraqi facilities engineering team.
A worker at the Anzio logistics site on Contingency Operating Base Basra, Iraq, bends rebar to be used in the placement of housing trailers for U.S. troops Nov. 14. The work at the site is being overseen and planned by an Iraqi facilities engineering team.

BASRA, Iraq (Nov. 20, 2009) – A Basra, Iraq, native brings 50 years of experience as an architect, a master’s degree and a resume that reads like a travel guide ranging across Europe and the Middle East and even Japan to his job as leader of the Iraqi facilities engineering team here.

Abrahim M. Oda al-Timimi leads six other Iraqi electrical, civil and mechanical engineers hired to take over the job of the U.S. Air Force’s facilities engineering team.

Timini’s team will oversee quality assurance and control for all facilities, utilities and construction on the base in a capacity that’s the military equivalent of city planners. And the small city that is Contingency Operating Base Basra is more complex than many would guess. The base has full sewage, water and electrical systems, roadways that are constantly being adapted and improved, and any number of ongoing construction projects.

It’s a good-sized job, and the current facilities engineering team has taken time and effort to make certain it is one the Iraqi team is ready to take over before they leave in the next few weeks and the new military team comes in.

Members of the Air Force team started training the Iraqi engineers on military regulations, customs and courtesies, as well as U.S. environmental standards, in October, said Air Force 1st Lt. Joe Gallegos, an electrical engineer with the 150th Civil Engineering Squadron out of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Now, he added, the Air Force is stepping back.

The Air Force team now acts primarily in a support role to the Iraqi team, providing consultation on American and military particulars and making certain the Iraqi engineers have everything they need, even such basic things as office supplies and furniture.

“The goal is that the Air Force [team] would never have to come back, and that the Iraqi [team] would be able to do everything,” Gallegos said. “We’re trying to work ourselves out of a job, basically.”

But as contractors, the Iraqi team cannot do some things, and even when the next – and last – Air Force team leaves in about six months, the Iraqi engineers will have a military officer to whom they can take their issues.

Still, with local contractors doing much of the work around the base, the Iraqi team can do some things that would be more difficult for their military counterparts. The Iraqis have no language barrier to overcome, and Timini and his colleagues know how to get materials locally, allowing them to propose cost-saving alternatives.

But cost isn’t always the primary factor. Standing in their office Nov. 14, members of the Iraqi facilities engineering team examined electrical outlets a contractor provided as samples. They looked OK on the surface and had “Made in UK” printed on the outside, but they lacked the necessary markings and certifications to meet U.S. Army standards. Achmed, an electrical engineer who asked that his last name not be used, rejected them without hesitation.

Achmed also is responsible for the electrical work in containerized housing units being refurbished at Logistics Support Area Anzio, where the local contractor is turning out eight finished trailers per day.

“We calculate the load,” Achmed explained, “and then check the circuit boards, wiring and sockets for each trailer.” He said he considers all the items that might be used in the units, from lights and electronics to coffee makers and mini-refrigerators. He then directs the contractor to make any changes the trailers need and provides the requirements the parts must meet.

The series of numbers and letters on a socket tell a variety of things about the part, he said, including its resistance to water. For a housing unit, a certain level is acceptable, he explained, but the same socket cannot be used in a shower trailer.

The base hospital, a short drive away, will be getting an overhaul of its electrical supply.

“This is our spaghetti,” Achmed said, pointing to a tangle of cables running out of the generators behind the combat support hospital. The cables were the “field expedient” solution when the hospital was first installed. “They are overloading the cables,” Achmed said, “because they didn’t know which cable is going where.”

Short cables were plugged into each other in place of long cables, and the connections are susceptible to water getting into them. The temporary remedy is obvious at a glance: several connections have been wrapped with bags and tape, already ragged from the weather. Most remain completely exposed.

The cables themselves are sound, Achmed said, so the team will not have them completely replaced. Instead, working in stages so as to not interrupt the operations of the hospital, they will test each cable and have the contractor replace the sockets with straight joints sealed against moisture.

Once that is done, Achmed explained, trenches will be dug and the cables will be arranged and properly buried or secured, allowing anyone who comes after them to know immediately which cable is which.

Hours later, on the other end of base at Camp Charlie, Mustafa Muhamed Atu al-Haidary, a civil engineer, explains the role he plays as a surveyor. In simplest terms, he collects data. However, the data is anything but simple.

Mustafa said he checks the levels of the land, records every angle of the area, as well as the width, length and even the GPS coordinates. He also takes down the measurements of any existing buildings and includes the structural and landscape changes to be made.

Jalil Dheyab, a civil engineer, pointed out the importance of surveying at the Anzio site.

“In getting the survey for us, it sometimes takes two or three days,” he said, “but it actually saves time and money.” At Camp Charlie, Mustafa reiterated the point.

“Without a database, that means you are floating,” he said, his hands gesturing a limbo of uncertainty.

Once all of the data is collected, Haitham Abood al-Hayati, a mechanical engineer, turns the numbers into visual plans – Mustafa turns the site into numbers, Haitham turns the numbers into a plan, and then Mustafa sees that the plan is turned into a reality. Their partnership is somewhat like a marriage, Haitham joked.

The Iraqi team members said they enjoy working with U.S. forces, and Mustafa even made a crack about grabbing onto the treads of the U.S. vehicles and hitching a ride at the final drawdown.

Haitham’s story is one many soldiers on deployment may find familiar. With limited time off and a wife who works a good distance across the country, he will go months without seeing the woman he married only this year, he said. The couple is working to develop a base of funds for their future, but that is not easy in Iraq, he added.

Jalil, who has been working alongside Americans in Iraq since 2004, is preparing for an Internet-based English test, and with family in America already, he said, he hopes to go to the United States, become a citizen, and then return to Iraq to help in rebuilding the country.

Abrahim said he is not certain what he will do in the future. He is 68 now, and has a daughter who is a successful architect in her own right in Poland, where he studied for his master’s degree. He said he has considered moving to Canada or the United States, but that it ultimately comes down to what work remains to be done in Iraq.

“If I go to Poland, what can I do but just sit?” he asked.