Contractor to oversee humanitarian supplies entering Iraqi port

A federal aid agency on Monday selected a cargo-handling company to monitor the tons of food and other humanitarian supplies expected to flow through the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq once allied forces have secured the area.

The United States Agency for International Development awarded the $4.8 million seaport management contract to Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of America. Under the agreement, Stevedoring Services will be responsible for ensuring that reconstruction materials and relief packages travel through the port as smoothly and quickly as possible.

The contractor will oversee the port pilots who guide aid supply ships up the channel to the port and will control access to the supplies while they are loaded onto trucks for land transport. In addition, Stevedoring Services will track shipments as they move inland.

As Iraq's only deepwater port, Umm Qasr is a key entry point for the food, water and other humanitarian supplies that President Bush promised would follow quickly after U.S. military attacks. So far, not many supplies have gotten through the port because allied forces were working to sweep the water clear of mines.

The mine clearing efforts ended Tuesday and the joint U.S.-Kuwaiti Humanitarian Operations Center sent a convoy of relief supplies through Umm Qasr on Wednesday. But AID could not confirm that allied troops at the port had given the official go-ahead for Stevedoring Services and member of the agency's Disaster Assistance Response (DART) team to set up in the port.

Once they receive permission, the contractor and relief workers can start the flow of supplies rapidly, AID Administrator Andrew Natsios said at a press briefing Tuesday. They should be able to start unloading ships within a "matter of days" after troops declare the area secure, he said.

The expected quick turnaround is partly because Stevedoring Services and the DART team have been able to send small advance teams to Umm Qasr to assess the supply route, Natsios said. The contractor's four-person team determined that the port is fully operational and in good physical condition.

In addition, AID has moved supplies into place in warehouses in Kuwait and Jordan, and 40 members of the DART team are now in the region and ready to help disburse the aid, Natsios said. Families in southern Iraq generally have enough food to last for about a month, he said. The southern city of Basra, the scene of recent intense ground fighting, has been without water or electricity for several days and is one of the greatest concerns for relief workers so far, according to Natsios.

The seaport management agreement with Stevedoring Services of America is the second of eight reconstruction contracts, together worth as much as $900 million, that AID plans to award. On March 13, International Resources Group, a consulting firm, accepted a $7 million contract to provide logistical support for AID's relief and reconstruction efforts. AID has also solicited bids for airport administration, public health projects, school construction efforts, infrastructure repairs, nation building and bottled water supplies.

Lawmakers and interest groups have criticized AID for keeping the contract bidding process relatively secret. Starting in January, AID sent applications to a select group of companies. The application forms for the remaining six contracts are currently posted on www.usaid.gov.

Natsios said that AID only contacted the small group to begin with, because the agency had to award the contracts within several months, and had no time for the more typical six-month competition process. The companies solicited to compete for bids already had substantial relief effort experience and the security clearances necessary to work in Iraq, he added.

In the next week, AID also plans on awarding $30 million in grants to nongovernmental organizations. NGO leaders have complained that the agency has marginalized their role in the bidding process. Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, an advocacy group for NGOs, said that he has been invited to weekly AID meetings throughout the winter, but feels the agency is pursuing its own agenda. He said AID could have awarded the grants to NGOs much earlier, so that the organizations would have had more time to prepare for relief efforts.

"At this point, the war has already started," Charny said. "NGOs would be in a much better position if they could have had the grants in January, so they wouldn't be scrambling around at the last minute."

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