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Iraqi Leads Effort to Rebuild Substation Near Sadr City

By Mitch Frazier
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 11, 2004 – Khalid Badrakhn is a businessman. Raised as a child in the Kurdish section of Iraq and educated at the United Kingdom's Aston University, he understands the two worlds in which he now lives: the one inside his air-conditioned office near Sadr City and the one of war that lies less than a mile outside of his window.

Twelve days after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003, he kissed his wife and son, said farewell to his British business partners and departed for the capital of the war-torn country he had been prohibited from as a child.

As a Kurd under the former regime, he was banished from Baghdad, left only to read of the opulent places and full-time electricity that grace the city. But today, he is not only witnessing the city's sprawl, he is pumping new life into its antiquated electrical system.

"I had never been allowed to come here before," he said as he walked the clean concrete streets of a Baghdad substation he is rebuilding. "I came back because I think it is time to come back. I was missing home. Plus I am a very good businessman and wanted to serve my country.

"We all serve our countries in our own ways," he said.

Badrakhn's way placed him in the role of managing director for one of the country's first woman-owned construction-management companies, FCM.

Since logging its first project only days after Baghdad came under control of the U.S.-led coalition, the company has scored several electricity projects from Basra to Mosul.

Its latest, a substation completion, lies on the outskirts of one of the city's worst neighborhoods, the Shiite slum of Sadr City. Construction on the substation began in 2000 but was stymied when French contractors on the site withdrew when fighting erupted in early 2003.

Pools of human waste and mounds of garbage quickly filled the site in the wake of the exodus, dashing hope for the area's supply of electricity that was slated to flow from the station upon completion.

Today that hope is once again alive.

A soccer field is being built where the sewage once pooled. Clean concrete drives and freshly painted buildings have replaced the mounds of garbage, and more than 140 Iraqi engineers and laborers are now working to complete construction of the country's largest gas-insulated switchgear substation.

It is a key element of the effort to revamp the country's electrical infrastructure, transforming the high-voltage electricity from the country's power plants into a voltage that can be distributed to homes.

"This is like the transmission in your car," said Maj. Erik Stor, operations officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Restore Iraqi Electricity team. "You can generate power, but you can't go anywhere without these things."

The substation is unlike many found in the states, as it uses gas-filled tubes to carry electricity as it is stepped down to a more usable voltage. The gas helps insulate the electricity and prevent it from arching in the dry desert air.

Iraqi laborers clad in jumpsuits and hard hats constantly mop the floor of the 300-meter-long building housing the tubes to cut down on airborne dust, and large alcohol swabs clean the tubes as they are put into place.

"It's got to be clean because of the high voltage," said 39-year-old Wes Davis, the site's construction superintendent from Bastrop, Texas. "Everything has to be clean; covers have to be kept on the tubes, and the dust ... the dust just has to be gone."

Davis, who has spent almost two years in the country working for the Texas- based contractor giant Kellogg, Brown and Root, has seen the substation evolve from the sewage-laden site into a near-complete substation in three months.

The goal, he said, is to be complete before the impending month-long Ramadan holiday, which is set to start Oct. 15. "We know that when Ramadan comes everything slows down because the Muslim workforce won't eat or drink during the day," he said. "So we are working two shifts, 24 hours a day now to get construction complete before the 15th."

Finishing the construction marks the nearing end of an accelerated program to bring the substation on line and distribute electricity to one of the city's most impoverished areas.

"This is the first step in many that will help this area get better," Badrakhn said. "Without substations, you will not be able to distribute the electricity and have people be able to benefit from it. We know this is important to the people, and that is why we are working so hard on getting it completed."

From the woman chief executive officer to the chief electrical engineer who only two days ago had her Haifa Street house littered with bullets, the motivation to succeed is unwavering in the ranks of the Iraqi company.

"This would have never happened before because women were not allowed to take leadership positions in companies or the ministries," Badrakhn said. "Despite their excellence, they could never achieve more than second or third line in a company.

"They are excellent in their profession, and that is the whole idea of FCM: bring all the expertise together, whether they are men or women," he said.

Even in an environment of constant threats and danger, the concept is working. No engineers or laborers at the site have been injured or killed by the insurgency, and the community is welcoming of the work onsite.

It's a rarity in the area, which has been the breeding ground for terrorists and anti-Iraqi activity.

"Sure I have been threatened, but you know this a place for no one to be scared. If you are scared, you can't do your job. So you might as well not be here," he said. "There are threats everywhere in Baghdad, in Iraq so it makes no difference where you are.

"I come to work because I have a job and I am a professional person, nothing emotional. I have to do a job, and I am paid to do it. That is why I come," he said.

Badrakhn has applied the same ideology to his efforts to bolster the relationship with the local community. Daily he employs a squad of nearly 40 local youth to tour the 4-acre complex to collect trash and improve the appearance of the site. The kids receive a day rate, meal, medical care and safety gear in exchange for their daylong shift.

"This helps us strengthen the relationship with the community," he said. "We are giving work to their children, and at the same time we are teaching them about pride, work ethic and safety.

"We are engineers here; it's not a matter of war. We are here to serve them, and this substation is for the Iraqis and built by Iraqis," he said. "We want the community to understand us. We know we cannot work without their protection."

The effort to bolster community support has not only saved the lives of the more than 150-member team onsite, it has saved the lives of residents in the nearby community.

Infection, parasites and stomach illnesses plague the city, but 51-year-old San Antonio native Michael Smith, the onsite health and safety officer for the project, has taken his medical treatment to the streets.

Smith, a licensed vocational nurse and Navy Reserve medic, opened a makeshift medical treatment clinic a couple days a week to treat minor injuries in the city.

It's a program that has reinforced the relationship between the community and the project, and one that has kept more of the local laborers on the jobsite.

"The main thing I see down there is parasites and stomach problems," Smith said. "There are a lot of infections, so I try to teach them to boil their water and to treat their wounds properly.

"The hope is that they will come see me before they have to miss time from work for being sick," he said.

The effort has also allowed Smith to teach others in the community basic health care techniques. "Whenever I treat one, I bring everyone around and take them through the procedure step by step," he said. "The next time, I make someone else do it while I watch. That way everyone gets hands-on experience."

Smith has also started a telemedicine program at his makeshift clinic, linking the remote site to the country's central trauma center in Baghdad.

Employing the local population and treating the sick paid off in April when insurgency in the city turned the area into a war zone. AK-47 rifle fire and shelling pummeled the community, but prompted a government broadcast from the area's minaret to not attack the substation or its workforce. "Do not attack the power station. These are good people," the loudspeaker crackled.

Work is slated to continue on the substation throughout the remainder of the year and is set to begin providing electricity to the area in January. "We are helping this society make the changes it needs," Badrakhn said. "Soon this will be operational, and we will have transferred much of our know-how and technology to the Iraqi people. They will have electricity and new skills, and we will be happy for having helped them."

(Mitch Frazier is assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division.)

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