How Contracts Get Messed Up – 3

Early winter 2006

Until today, one of my favorite projects was dead on schedule, a rare occurrence in this environment. The project is one that will benefit a large portion of the population of the country, and the contractor’s work is of exemplary quality all the way down to the smallest detail. As a dubious bonus, it’s located in a very picturesque spot that visiting VIPs and journalists love to visit. All in all, it’s considered a star.

My Iraqi field engineer informed me today that the project will be falling behind schedule. A key piece of equipment sitting in the hold of a ship lacks the proper piece of paper to be unloaded. In any case, the ship is standing offshore in a long line of ships, all waiting their turn to enter the port.

“Who issues the paperwork,” I ask my engineer. I’m wondering if I know anyone who knows anyone who can pull a few strings.

“There is one woman in Baghdad who issues these papers,” my engineer tells me.

“For all the ships?” I ask. “One woman doing all the papers for each piece of cargo on each ship?”

“For each piece of imported equipment, yes,” my engineer says with a straight face, as if this is a perfectly normal way to do business.


I spend the morning trying to track down a contact phone number or email address of this Paper Lady in Baghdad. I don’t get anywhere before I leave for the field. I’ll try again later, just as soon as I can think of someone else I know in Baghdad who might know someone who would know someone who might know someone else who would know who to call to light a fire under this woman.

In the meantime, since I’m out visiting projects, I stop in at the office of a State Department friend who knows the port in hopes that he can fill me in on the ships lined up waiting to dock. I hadn’t known there were so many. I think it might be useful to know if this sort of delay is likely to affect some of my other projects.

“How many ships are waiting to dock right now,” I ask when I’ve tracked the man down in his camp near one of my projects.

“Sixteen and counting,” State Man answers. “Some have been lined up out there for two months. The so-called port security force is militia. They’ve insinuated themselves more and more into the business of the port over the past year. They won’t allow a ship to enter port without paying a bribe, and once docked they have to pay again to get the cargo unloaded. Security,” he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “is worming their way into customs now. The port authorities are powerless to stop them, getting no support from Baghdad.”

“My equipment could sit out there offshore and rot, then,” I conclude.

“It’s possible,” he agrees. “And even if the ship docks and gets unloaded,” he says with a shrug, “then you have to find the right container.”

Eh? I think, making a quizzical face.

“There’s no system for container storage at the port,” he explains. “Ships get unloaded, and the containers just get stacked randomly in the yard. They’re not recorded anywhere, and there’s no filing or tracking system for them. You’ve seen the container yard …”

I nod. I have: containers stacked in rough rows, four high. Acres and acres and acres of containers.

“Are you telling me that for someone to find their container, they have to cruise around through that whole yard reading the numbers on every container until they happen to stumble across their own?” I say, thinking that I might have misunderstood.

“That’s it,” State Man agrees. “There are containers that have been sitting there for years. There’s no telling what’s out there.”

We both stare at each other, thinking about the intriguing possibilities. Huh.


This evening I catch a break, making contact with someone who knows someone who knows who the Paper Lady is and how to contact her.

There my luck ends.

“You’ll get no joy from her,” I’m warned. “She’s a dragon-lady, running on her own time, doling out papers at her own snail’s pace.”

When I reach her by telephone, sure enough, I’m stonewalled. “One by one!” she snaps. “I approve in order! You wait!”


I’ve had to do so many time extensions on projects, it doesn’t take more than ten minutes to get this one written up.  



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