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State Contractor Eager to Return to War-Torn Iraq

Fri June 18, 2004 - Southeast Edition

MONTGOMERY, AL (AP) Winton Blount’s hometown is eerily quiet to him. His ears are waiting for a bomb blast, exploding rockets, gunshots –– sounds that reverberate from his months in Iraq.

He just can’t shake off this feeling that if he had stayed in Baghdad a week or two longer, he could have been one of the contractors who were kidnapped or tortured –– or beheaded like American telecommunication expert Nicholas Berg.

“My stomach nearly turned over,” he said of the videotaped beheading earlier this month.

Blount said he lived only two buildings away from Berg. While they never met, the two often walked the same paths going to and from work. Blount knows what might have happened.

“It’s not a good feeling, even now that I’m out,” Blount said. “I’ve been so jumpy since I’ve been back.”

Despite the gruesome fighting and attacks he witnessed while living in Baghdad, where he worked to construct Army barracks for coalition troops, he is itching to return to the war-torn city.

He went there voluntarily, among the entrepreneurs who saw Iraq as a potentially rewarding business venture, not a frightening battleground.

For the 39-year-old Blount –– he’s Winton Blount IV, heir to a famous Alabama name –– the Mideast has been receptive in the past.

Three decades ago, the construction company of his grandfather, Winton “Red” Blount, built a university in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh and had other projects in Iran.

The elder Blount was a former postmaster general in the Nixon administration who also made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate from Alabama in 1972, despite the efforts of a young campaign staffer named George W. Bush.

Winton Blount IV is angry that he won’t be able to return to Iraq anytime soon because of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal that has refueled intense violence in Baghdad and its outskirts.

Blount said as long as the humiliating images keep surfacing, insurgents will be motivated to retaliate.

Blount and his American partners in his company, Blount 4 Inc., decided to leave in late March, when the insurgency began to intensify and rumors of an attack by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged. Al-Sadr’s militia launched a bloody revolt two weeks later.

The week Blount left was marked by the killing and mutilation of four American private security contractors in the city of Fallujah.

In the days that led up to the killings, the overwhelming violence confined Blount to his apartment that overlooked the square where Saddam Hussein’s statue once stood.

“In our eyes it was getting more and more dangerous each day,” he said. “Each day we thought it would get resolved. But then we heard the rumors about the militia, and we knew it was time to go.”

Blount still had contracts out for more than a dozen projects, and had to rely on his local employees to finish them in his absence.

When he left for Iraq in May 2003, the married father of three did not anticipate such an attachment to what he calls the “nastiest city” he’s ever seen.

Blount said he traveled to Iraq when he reached a point in his career that left him looking for a purpose. He had just parted from his family’s plastics business, a company run by his father, Winton Blount III, a former gubernatorial candidate and former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

He was approached by a friend who pointed him to Bob Isakson, head of Disaster Relief Co., a construction firm that builds in areas damaged by war or natural disasters.

With less than a week’s notice in June, Blount decided to join Isakson in Iraq along with Andy Furr, a University of Alabama graduate who had studied Arabic and was eager to visit the Middle East.

Their first assignment in the outskirts of the ravaged city was to organize the renovation of quarters for security workers who provided security at Baghdad International Airport.

Upon completion of that project, Blount and Furr decided to leave Disaster Relief and form a partnership with two Iraqi brothers, Bashir and Namir Al Mufti, who headed Saida General Contractors.

Blount and Furr’s small firm got a contract to convert a burned-out building into barracks for soldiers, followed by another barracks project worth $2 million.

The firm grew to about 25 employees, including an Iraqi architect. He said he always felt welcomed by his Iraqi workers and neighbors and forged strong relationships with them.

Blount said he feels that establishing a successful business in Iraq and simultaneously serving the troops and locals would have made his late grandfather proud.

“It’s gone through my mind that he’d be smiling down at me doing this,” Blount said. “He always looked to doing business where people hadn’t gone before. ... We’re not afraid of doing business in strange places.”