Despite reconstruction contract wins, engineer says it will wait until situation improves before opening office

Engineering firm Halcrow has put its plans for a permanent office in Basra on indefinite hold, because of the security situation in Iraq.

Halcrow announced last year that it intended to open a permanent office in the Iraqi city after a series of wins on infrastructure projects under the reconstruction programme, and began interviewing candidates for posts in the region. But the firm has now said plans for a permanent presence will not go ahead until security improves.

A source close to the firm said: “We always said we were looking to set up a permanent office in Basra, but we won’t do anything now until the situation is secure. Once that happens, then we will still want an office there, as there will be massive spending in the region when conditions allow it.”

The decision to put the office on hold comes in the wake of increasing violence in the Iraqi capital, including a spate of bomb attacks against US troops. Attacks against workers, particularly in the engineering sector, have escalated since the kidnapping and beheading of British engineer Ken Bigley in October 2004. About 200 private sector contractors have been killed since the conflict began.

Rab Brown, Halcrow’s director in Iraq, told Building from his Dubai office that the firm currently had six British personnel in the“green zone” in Baghdad and three Iraqi staff manning a temporary office in Basra.

He said: “The work’s there: that’s a given. We’re just waiting for the right conditions to do it. I’ll be looking to re-staff the Basra office [with British staff] as soon as the situation becomes more secure.”

The work’s there: that’s a given. We’re just waiting for the right conditions to do it

Rab Brown, director in Iraq

Brown added that he hoped the security situation would improve sufficiently by next April. In the meantime, the firm is looking at jobs in Basra and Umm Qasr, and is undertaking a strategic review of the country’s rail sector, which the firm is carrying out with an American consultancy.

He said: “The railway is in a pretty bad state as it hasn’t been upgraded in 35 years. The work is basically a strategic view of Iraq’s rail systems over the next 50 years.”

Halcrow has also said that political volatility will not deter it from working in neighbouring Iran, which has been the subject of increased international tension as the result of aggressive statements by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared earlier this month that Israel should be “wiped off the map”.

Engineering firm Costain said earlier this month that it was “monitoring the situation” in the country, but Halcrow is adamant that it will continue to seek work in the region.