LONDON -- In the sandy expanse of Libya's desert, where temperatures climb above 100 degrees on a winter's day, an army of more than 12,000 foreign workers is toiling on one of the world's most audacious and mysterious public works projects.
Drilling rigs rise 60 feet in the air, their gigantic hammers and powerful drilling bits boring more than a quarter mile into the earth. Hundreds of trucks haul 75-ton sections of concrete pipe, 13 feet in diameter, which are then lowered into place by huge cranes and buried beneath the sand.
Libya calls it the Great Man-Made River Project, and says the gargantuan lattice work of underground pipes, wells and pumping stations will someday make the desert bloom from Tripoli to Kufra.
But in separate interviews, three engineers working on the $25-billion project said the official explanation was improbable or incomplete. They said they suspect the system of underground pipes and reservoirs, which is being built largely with American equipment, has some clandestine military purpose.
"If Saddam Hussein said he was building a 4-meter pipe to 100 miles from Kuwait, 100 miles from Iran, 100 miles from Turkey, for the purpose of moving water, would you believe him?" asked one European engineer.
A tunnel of pipes 4 meters, or 13 feet, in diameter is large enough to accommodate military vehicles, even a rail line. When the project is completed, Libya will have more than 2,000 miles of tunnel stretching from Tunisia to Egypt. In the south, it will reach almost to Sudan and Chad, a country with which Libya has tense relations.
Every 50 to 60 miles along the pipeline, huge underground storage areas are being constructed, and the engineers said they are more elaborate than would be needed for holding water. The facilities, made of reinforced concrete, would be suitable for bivouacking troops or storing military supplies, including poison gas, the engineers said.
While the system of pipelines does not by itself change the military balance in the region, it provides Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, extensive opportunities to conceal his activities from the American spy satellites that pass overhead each day.
"This is the first real evidence of something which has been suspected for several years," Paul Beaver, a defense and intelligence analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly, said when told of the engineers' descriptions of the project. "Gadhafi seems to have taken a leaf out of Kim Il Sung's book and created a potential military arsenal underground," he added, referring to the late North Korean dictator.
North Korea has an elaborate underground military system with storage facilities and tunnel routes for vehicles and troops. Beaver, a former British army officer with intelligence expertise, said that the tunnel system would allow Gadhafi to conceal troop movements, gain an element of surprise over an enemy, and protect his own troops from pre-emptive strikes.
Other analysts are alarmed because the pipeline runs through a mountain called Tarhuna. This is where Gadhafi is constructing a chemical and biological weapons plant, American and European intelligence officials have said.
The tunnel system would be an "extension of Tarhuna," said Robert Waller, an American expert on Libyan national security policy. It would provide Gadhafi with more places to store his chemical and biological weapons, protecting them from destruction or detection by overhead surveillance, said Waller, who worked at the National Security Council last summer.
The engineers who described the project were interviewed in different countries. They said they felt their jobs, and lives, would be at risk if they were identified. One of the men approached The New York Times after reading an article in the newspaper about industrial sales to Libya; he has also taken his observations and concerns to American officials.
The other two men, residents of different countries, were located and interviewed separately; neither have spoken with American officials. All of the men have had considerable experience on oil and water drilling projects around the world.
How so much American equipment has reached Libya for the project is unclear.
An embargo on trade with Libya has been in place since 1986 when President Ronald Reagan imposed it in in response to evidence that Gadhafi was behind numerous terrorist attacks. Yet, the desert is awash with American equipment.
"I see so many American products in Libya," said Alberto Bertoli, a senior manager with Il Nuovo Castoro, an Italian construction company that is a major subcontractor on the project. "I don't know how they got there."
The engineers, and Bertoli, said the project was relying on Cummins engines, Caterpillar earth-moving equipment, Baker Hughes drilling bits, Dowell Schlumberger cementing units and chemicals, as well as mining and drilling equipment from other American companies.
One of the engineers said he had seen more than 400 Caterpillars.
In a response to questions, the Peoria, Ill.-based company issued a statement saying that it went to "great lengths to comply with U.S. law," and that, "Specific shipments of Caterpillar products to customers in Libya have taken place with full approval of the U.S. government. Caterpillar does not condone any transactions involving our equipment by third parties that do not comply with U.S. law."
"We won't be providing any additional information," the company said.
A senior official at the Treasury Department, which enforces the embargo on Libya, said the department had issued no licenses for export of any heavy equipment from the United States to Libya.
Cummins Engine, based in Indiana, said in a statement that it "is fully aware of the legal restrictions on dealing with Libya, and to our knowledge, there are no Cummins engines in Libya unlawfully."
Bertoli and the three engineers asserted that most of the dozen Soilmec drilling rigs in Libya were outfitted with Cummins engines.
Soilmec, an Italian manufacturer, said that indeed it had bought engines from Cummins and that it had sold a dozen drilling rigs to Libya. It declined to say, however, if any had Cummins engines.
The European Union does not bar commercial trade with Libya, largely because many European countries rely on Libya for their oil and gas. It is revenue from this trade that finances the Great Man-Made River Project. And one way that Libya acquires American equipment is by routing it through a European company -- with or without the American company's knowledge of the ultimate destination.
American companies also get around the sanctions by having the work in Libya done by their foreign subsidiaries, Bertoli and the engineers said. Such transactions are beyond the reach of the sanctions law only if the subsidiary acts strictly on its own, without any guidance from its American parent, U.S. officials said.
When the Great Man-Made River Project was begun in 1984, Brown and Root, the Houston construction company, prepared the feasibility studies and drafted the specifications. Price Brothers, a pipe-manufacturing company in Ohio, supplied the pipe-making machinery.
Brown and Root, which is now owned by Halliburton, is still the project manager, and the huge pipes are manufactured at Brega, near Benghazi, under license from Price Brothers, a privately owned company.
But after the sanctions were imposed, Brown and Root transferred the work being done in Houston to its British office, said Ken Beedle, a spokesman for Brown and Root in Britain. He said the company had 200 people working on the contract in Libya and another 200 in Britain. He declined to say how much the contract was worth.
Price Brothers did not respond to requests for comment, made to its American and British offices. But in the past, news reports have said that it, too, transferred work to its British office after sanctions were imposed.
The primary contractor for the multi-billion-dollar Great Man-Made River Project is Dong Ah, a South Korean construction conglomerate. It has recruited its engineers from Europe and its laborers from Asia -- to feed them, Dong Ah has farms near Benghazi, one for eggs and chickens, another for vegetables and a third for beef.The company buys its equipment from the United States when it can.
Last year, the company and two employees, Je Han-lee and Glen Ainsworth, pleaded guilty before a federal court in Louisville, Ky., to charges of illegally exporting drilling equipment from the United States to Libya. The company paid a $3 million fine while the employees received probation and fines of $5,000 each.
Dong Ah is currently under investigation in Texas, on charges of having violated the embargo by buying anti-corrosive pipe chemicals for the Libyan project, and of money-laundering, American law enforcement officials said.
Companies that violate the embargo are subject to having their export licenses revoked by the Commerce Department.
It is not clear why Dong Ah has not had sanctions imposed on it, and a Commerce Department spokesman declined to comment, saying that the department would not comment on any investigations that "may or may not be under way."
Dong Ah did not respond to a fax with questions about the project, including how the company was able to buy equipment from American companies.
One of the engineers said that Dong Ah was currently bringing to Libya a piece of equipment made by Dowell Schlumberger which is used to pour cement into holes and that Ainsworth had arranged it. The engineers said the unit, which may be reconditioned, came via Hamburg, Germany. Ainsworth was in Libya, and could not be reached.
A spokesman for Schlumberger, who asked not to be identified by name, said that it was the company's "policy in all parts of the world to adhere to all U.S. laws as well as all other applicable laws regarding such situations." The company, which is registered in the Netherlands Antilles and has its headquarters in Paris and New York, declined to comment further.
A division of one of Schlumberger's competitors, Baker Hughes, has also been supplying the Great Man-Made River Project, according to the engineers.
Hughes Christensen, a division of the Baker Hughes in Belfast, offered to sell Dong Ah, 20 rock bits, at $20,000 each, according to a fax provided to The New York Times. The offer was sent to Dong Ah's Je Han-lee, one of the men who pled guilty in the Kentucky case.
Baker Hughes has its headquarters in Houston and a spokesman for the company, Arthur Downey, said its policy on trade with Libya was "stricter than U.S. law requires."
"It is well within the law for Hughes Christensen in the U.K. to have a transaction with Libya," Downey said, referring to Britain.
The Great Man-Made River Project is intended primarily to supply water for irrigation, not drinking, said Bertoli, the manager with Il Nuovo Castoro. After more than a decade of work, however, almost no irrigation work has been done, such as digging ditches or running pipes from the main line, according to the three engineers and a French consultant on the project. At the same time, about 70 percent of the 13-foot pipe has been laid, and one third of the wells have been dug, the consultant said.
This reinforces the engineers' doubts that it is an irrigation project. Moreover, if it were, one of the engineers said, there would be no need to lay a 13-foot pipe from Tripoli and Benghazi. A pipe half that diameter would be adequate for hundreds of miles, because there would be less water to carry if water were being diverted along the way for irrigation.
In conventional military terms, the investment of $25 billion in an underground tunnel system seems excessive, said Waller, the Libyan security expert, who is studying for a doctorate in the Department of War Studies at King's College, London.
But, Gadhafi does not always act rationally on military matters, said Waller. For example, the Libyan leader has spent billions of dollars fortifying his Mediterranean coastline, as if he were preparing for a repeat of the Normandy invasion, Waller said.
"It is in keeping with his siege mentality," he added.
Bertoli said it was "not logical" for Gadhafi to spend $25 billion in this way if his aims were military.
Then again, he observed, it was not entirely rational for Libya, which has suffered economic difficulties, to spend that amount of money to move water through the desert.
"It is not an economical project," he said.
1997 The New York Times Company