The start of ground fighting in Iraq over the past week intensified the military's infrastructure and logistical challenges and unleashed award of a number of new support contracts. Activity also included a Bush Administration request to Congress for $74.7 billion to fight the war, provide humanitarian relief and combat terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.

The "engineering demands are astounding early on," in a military engagement, Army Corps of Engineers Major General Hans Van Winkle told attendees at the Associated General Contractors convention March 20 in Honolulu. The deputy Corps commander described the modern battlefield as a "continuum." Changes in technology have made rear areas as active as front lines, he added.

Construction activities include contingency roads and airfields, base camp construction, baseline environmental assessment, force protection engineering, assessment and repair of bridges and utilities, and tactical military hydrology. "You can live in the mud and dirt for a certain amount of time, but then there are diminishing returns in terms of health and effectiveness," said Van Winkle.

Rear Admiral Michael Johnson, commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, also told attendees that Seabees are expediting projects such as a 22-acre parking apron that involved placing 37,000 cu yd of concrete.

Fast tracking such work and responding to war developments has already generated contracts to private-sector firms, some controversial.

Kellogg Brown & Root, the construction subsidiary of Dallas-based Halliburton Co., announced March 24 the award of a Corps of Engineers contract to assess and extinguish oil well fires in Iraq and to repair damaged petroleum infrastructure. KBR declined to disclose the contract's value but says it is subcontracting firefighting work to Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc. and Wild Well Control Inc., both Houston-based.

In its announcement, KBR touted expertise gained during the 1991 Gulf War. "Halliburton crews brought 320 wells in Kuwait under control in less time than was expected, and extinguished 90% of the blowouts within one year of the beginning of operations," KBR said.

The contract has apparently raised eyebrows among some officials of Bechtel Group Inc., which had the program management contract from Kuwait Oil Co. to control the oil well fires. Some questioned the dimensions of Halliburton's role. The award also prompted industry speculation as to political connections between Halliburton and the Administration. Vice President Dick Cheney is a former company CEO, although he has divested himself of company stock. While one construction executive says the Corps' oil well award is "small," Bush's request to Congress includes as much as $500 million to fight Iraqi oil fires.

KBR is reportedly also one of two contractors chosen by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to receive major contracts for base operations-related work in Iraq that may involve exposure to caches containing weapons of mass destruction. Raytheon Corp. is the other. DTRA officials declined comment on the awards or their values. The firms are among five that have already been preselected by the agency and then compete with each other for "task orders." These usually range from $1 million to $15 million, but have been as high as $50 million. The others are Washington Group International, Fluor Corp. and Parsons Corp.

The U.S. Agency for International Development also awarded on March 24 the first of eight construction-related contracts in Iraq, a $4.8-million award to Stevedoring Services of America, Seattle, for management activities at the port of Umm Qasr. It will be responsible for port operation to allow reconstruction materials, food and other relief supplies to be delivered.

But more industry attention is focused on USAID's pending award of a capital reconstruction contract in Iraq that could total up to $600 million over 21 months. It was expected to be announced by March 28.

The contract will focus on preliminary work, and more contracts are expected to be let as the full extent of needed work becomes known. International banks, donor countries and other organizations, including the United Nations, are also expected to have a role.

There will be a lot of work to be done, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios said at a March 25 briefing. "Six hundred million dollars is not going to rebuild the infrastructure of that country," much of which was in a state of disrepair before the war, he said.

USAID is set to award the contract to one of a handful of U.S. engineer-contractors that were invited on Feb. 12 to respond to the agency's request for proposals (ENR 3/17 p. 10). The firm selected will be prime contractor for the initial contract, but as much of 50% of the work will likely go to subcontractors. One source speculates that USAID will have a more significant reconstruction presence in Iraq, with the Corps having "a secondary role."

Neither Natsios nor the bidders would discuss the status of the procurement, but sources told ENR that some firms, including Washington Group International, HDR Corp. and Fluor Corp. have already been eliminated. At least one executive also speculated whether politics might influence the possible selection of KBR and Bechtel Group Inc.

The procurement puzzled some E&C firms and led others to carefully weigh the potential impact of Iraq involvement on clients and resources. "I didn't feel comfortable with the compensation, with making commitments on our resources," said one firm executive. "The whole procurement process made us nervous. In some cases, USAID couldn't answer basic questions." He also questioned why only one prime contractor was being selected.

Bush's budget request, announced March 24 and sent to Congress the following day, includes $62.6 billion for the military effort, with $700 million to repair Iraqi oil damage and for programs in Colombia and Afghanistan. There also would be $200 million for other military construction.

The package includes $2.4 billion for a new, flex-ible account focused on relief and reconstruction. Combined with items in the $62.6-billion Dept. of Defense portion of the plan, the total commitment for relief and reconstruction would be about $3.5 billion, says the Office of Management and Budget. The plan also contains $4.2 billion for homeland defense, including $1.5 billion for the new Dept. of Homeland Security.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young (R-Fla.) said he plans to move Bush's request through the House quickly "and will resist any efforts to add extraneous provisions." In the Senate, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he supports funds for the military mission, but "I am not for giving a blank check to this or any other administration."