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US Lawmakers Probe Electrocutions of US Troops in Iraq

Members of the U.S. Congress are investigating the electrocutions of 12 soldiers in Iraq. Critics say faulty electrical work done by U.S. contractor KBR is to blame for the deaths. Senate Democrats held a hearing on the matter Friday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Members of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee heard emotional testimony from the mothers of two soldiers who were electrocuted in Iraq.

Cheryl Harris lost her 24-year-old son, Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, in January, after a jolt of electricity shot through his body and killed him while he took a shower at his base. The water pump had not been properly grounded.

Harris, the mother of three sons serving in Iraq, reacted in disbelief when she was informed of his death. "While I was always prepared to hear that my sons died by way of a firefight or a roadside bomb, I was dumbstruck to hear in the days following my son's death that he was electrocuted while taking a shower in his living quarters on his army base at the Radwaniyah Palace complex in Baghdad," she said.

Harris said she later learned that the U.S.-funded contractor responsible for maintaining American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR, had inspected the building and found serious electrical problems 11 months before her son was electrocuted.

Larraine McGee lost her 23-year-old son, Sergeant Christopher Everett, in 2005 when he was electrocuted while cleaning a Humvee at his base in central Iraq with a power washer that had not been properly grounded.

She appealed to lawmakers to bring accountability to those responsible. "Anger has now taken over my grief. I plead with you to do something to bring an end to this unnecessary cause of death to our soldiers," she said.

Two former employees of KBR who worked as electricians described a pervasive carelessness and disregard for quality work at the company.

They said the firm did not provide electricians with the tools they needed to do the job properly, and said a number of electricians were inexperienced and unlicensed.

"Most work done in the Green Zone was awarded to subcontractors. The subcontractors employed third-country nationals and national workers who were not familiar or skilled in U.S. quality standards, U.S. safety standards, and installation techniques, or U.S. codes. The KBR employees supervising these contractors often had no electrical experience at all. It was not uncommon for a labor foreman with no electrical experience to supervise Iraqi electrical subcontractors or third country nationals doing electrical work," said Debbie Crawford, a licensed electrician with KBR.

Crawford says she repeatedly warned her superiors of faulty electrical work - as did Jeffrey Bliss, the other former KBR electrician, but to no avail. "The attitude of the KBR supervisor was usually, and I can quote again, this is a war zone. What are you going to do?"

Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, vowed to seek answers from the Pentagon.

No Republicans took part in the hearing. Representatives of both the Defense Department and KBR were invited to testify, but none attended.

At the Pentagon, a spokesman said the Defense Department considers this to be a very serious issue and has referred it to the Inspector General's office for action.

For its part, KBR has stated that it has found no evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and the reported electrocutions.