Tom Elkins, the executive in charge of procurement for the private contracting giant Bechtel, said Washington had put a "high priority" on reopening the airport that was occupied by US forces during the invasion of Iraq.


"We are working to open Baghdad airport by July 15," Elkins said on the sidelines of an extraordinary meeting of the World Economic Forum in Jordan. "We have people that are installing the critical components now,"  he said.


Iraqi firms preferred


He said the authorities were negotiating concessions for commercial airlines as a normal part of opening the airport. He could not say which carriers were in talks to start using the facility.


Elkins said Bechtel was determined to hire Iraqi firms to help rebuild the country and was considering even lending them cash to get the job done.   


Most reconstruction work so far was being carried out by firms from the occupying countries US and Britain.


The pace of awarding contracts to Iraqis was picking up, Elkins said, adding that his company was “very aggressive” about this.


Giving work to Iraqi firms
not a favour

"What we choose to do is subcontract 90 percent of the work, and we will try our best to subcontract the majority of the 90 percent to Iraqi companies," Elkins said.


Elkins said many Iraqi companies lacked the cash, equipment and resources to bid competitively on many of the subcontracts on offer. This was because they had been operating for nearly 13 years under sanctions but that legacy could be overcome, he said.


He also said Bechtel planned to break down the subcontracts into smaller components to allow more firms to bid.


Pre-qualified firms, assessed with the help of the Iraqi Contractors' Federation, would be posted on Bechtel's website, with foreign firms asked to seek them as partners.


Iraqi businessman Asad Al-Khudhairy, head of the nearly 10,000 strong Iraqi Contractors' Federation, said Bechtel had no choice but to hire Iraqi firms.


"The Iraqis will get the bulk of the subcontracts because they (Bechtel) have no other options. Iraqis are qualified, they are good and they are cheap," said Khudhairy, second-in-command at one of Iraq's oldest family-owned businesses that has dealt with rulers from the Ottomans to its current occupiers.


The Bush administration chose Bechtel, the San Francisco-based firm, as its main contractor to rebuild ports, power networks, airports, schools, roads and other facilities in US-occupied Iraq.