Working in a War Zone

Engineers in Iraq find high risk but high reward

5 min read

How's this for an understatement? Working in Iraq isn't for everybody. Nevertheless, over the past three years, a few thousand engineers of many nationalities have gone to work on the country's massive, US $60 billion reconstruction. They've left their friends and family to go to a war zone where at least a dozen engineers--and perhaps as many as two or three dozen--have been killed over the past three years.

Why do they do it? In interviews in Baghdad last fall with about 25 engineers, including five born in Iraq, a few reasons kept coming up. The chance to use their skills to help improve a bad situation was a big draw, and they liked the large scope and budgets of the projects in Iraq. Contractor salaries in the range of $200 000 to $300 000 a year--typically tax-free--didn't hurt either. For a minority who said they craved excitement and being where the action is, even the war-zone setting was seen as a plus.

While on assignment in Iraq last autumn, I heard several explosions, including one from a suicide attack, which took place a few kilometers from me, on a convoy transporting the Iraqi interior minister. Small-arms fire erupted near my vehicle late one morning just outside a checkpoint into the Green Zone, the heavily guarded, 11.7-square-kilometer region in central Baghdad. I saw bullet marks on armored vehicles and heard first- and secondhand stories about grisly insurgent attacks.

And yet I found that the danger is not at all as most people outside Iraq imagine it. For engineers and many other contractors, almost all of it comes in the form of roadside insurgent attacks on vehicles ferrying them outside the Green Zone. The risk of an engineering job depends, like all work in Iraq, on how much time you have to spend on Iraq's roads and at unsecured sites in areas where insurgent activity is common. Most engineering positions in Iraq do involve fieldwork, at power plants, substations, or cellular base stations, for example [see photo, " "]. So a certain amount of road travel and therefore exposure is inevitable.

The engineering contractors operating in Iraq, particularly the big ones, spend enormous sums protecting their people out in the field. Typically, pairs of engineers travel in a convoy of sport-utility vehicles, wearing body armor during the ride. The vehicles themselves are heavily armored. In a typical three-car convoy are at least eight well-armed and -trained security men, who are often ex­Special Forces soldiers. Such a setup, known as a Personal Security Detachment (PSD), has proven effective against just about everything except very big roadside bombs and suicide car bombs.

Many, perhaps most, of the electrical engineers in Iraq are working in the electric power sector, on which more than $6 billion has been spent or committed so far, most of it from the U.S. government. A smaller number of EEs are working on communications projects, both wireless and wire line. There are perhaps dozens of engineers working directly for the U.S. government, typically at one of the key U.S. bureaucracies involved, such as the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO), which is part of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But the vast majority of engineers--many hundreds, certainly--are working for one of the scores of private companies that hold contracts or subcontracts under the IRMO or the Army Corps of Engineers. In the electric power sector, the key contractors have been the Iraq Power Alliance, a joint venture of the global engineering firms WorleyParsons Ltd., in Sydney, Australia, and Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd., in London; FluorAMEC LLC, based in Sugar Land, Texas, and London; Washington Group International Inc., in Boise, Idaho; and Perini Corp., in Framingham, Mass. [see "Re-engineering Iraq," IEEE Spectrum, February]. Bechtel National Inc., of San Francisco, has also won some major contracts in both power generation and telephony. And just starting work now on new projects are Siemens, headquartered in Berlin and Munich, and its VA Tech division; Areva of Paris; and ABB, based in Zurich.

Before pursuing a job in Iraq, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, it's extremely unlikely you'd be able to bring your spouse, and you certainly wouldn't be able to bring your kids. Second, though the pay is high, job security isn't. Most of the engineering contractors in Iraq are global firms that have projects going on all over the world. After a year or two, when your Iraq tour is up, the firm may have another contract for you--especially if you do well in Iraq--but it will probably be in some other far corner of the world. So if the idea of regularly adapting yourself to other cultures is a net minus to you rather than a plus, this kind of work isn't for you.

I asked an IEEE member who'd been in Iraq on and off for two years why he came. "It's a chance to make an impact," he answered, without hesitating. "To make a difference in people's lives." To those planning to take a job in Iraq, he says, "You need to bring two things: patience and a sense of humor. Nothing goes as planned here. It's a chaotic environment; you're in a country that has been devastated by war." (Citing their employer's policy or other concerns, all sources I spoke to requested anonymity.)

An Iraqi EE told me he returned to Iraq with 150 other Iraqi expatriates in 2003 under a U.S. government-sponsored program. With scholarships from the old Iraqi monarchy, he had received bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at British universities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He returned to Iraq in the late 1960s and left again in 1982 to escape Saddam Hussein's repression. He came back in 2003, because he felt he "had a debt to pay.... I was paid by Iraq to go to school in England," he says. Shortly after he returned, he was staying in a hotel outside the Green Zone. Singing in the shower one morning, he was jostled by two big explosions as Katyusha rockets launched by insurgents detonated eight rooms away. He now lives inside the Green Zone.

Living and working conditions in the Green Zone are probably better than most outsiders imagine [see photo, " "]. Contractors live in trailers or dormitory-style facilities, with private bathrooms and satellite television. The quality of the food served in the military dining facilities was actually better than I had expected. The Green Zone is crisscrossed with blast walls and barbed wire. But it also has one of Saddam's many indescribably huge and tacky palaces (now the interim U.S. Embassy) and lots of spacious and comfortable buildings and recreational facilities that once catered to the elite under Saddam. For example, a complex near the trailer where I slept during my stay had the largest swimming pool I'd ever seen, plus two other pools, a well-equipped gym, a lounge, locker rooms, and a movie theater. Handbills up on the walls advertised belly-dancing classes. Anyone with a government-issued photo ID, including contractors, can use the facility (and learn belly dancing) for free.

Perhaps the biggest shock of all was that the Green Zone actually has a rather exuberant nightlife. It's not exactly a singles' paradise, but it's more or less what you might expect when you put lots of adventurous and enthusiastic men and women in close quarters and surround them with a sporadic, hovering peril. There are a few secure bars and restaurants in guarded compounds, and frequent parties--which are generally by invitation only--in the various corporate and diplomatic compounds scattered around the zone. There are also lots of special-interest social and athletic groups.

On occasion, insurgents still lob mortars into the Green Zone, but it's been a while since they managed to harm anybody that way. Still, the intermittent audible explosions and other reminders of danger beyond the blast walls contribute to a charged atmosphere, and sometimes even a sense of surreality.

In the end, what I liked about the place was a remarkably deep and pervasive spirit of cooperation among people from many different nationalities and cultures. Strong bonds and enduring friendships happen fast there, and they're of a kind that seems to spring up only among people who eat together, work together--and risk their lives together.

To Probe Further

An incomplete list of contractor casualties is maintained at

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