Bechtel Corp., a politically active corporation with wide experience overseas, has won a competition to help rebuild Iraq under a contract that could grow to $680 million.

The San Francisco construction and engineering company will receive $34.6 million to start work under Thursday's award, but could earn the larger figure over 18 months if Congress approves the funds.

Several Democratic lawmakers have criticized the fast-track bidding process that allowed only a few experienced companies to submit proposals. The U.S. Agency for International Development has controlled the bidding, saying speed was essential to meet Iraq's pressing postwar needs.

The contract covers rehabilitation of the power, water and sewage systems, rehabilitation or repair of airport facilities and dredging, repair and upgrading of the Umm Qasr seaport in cooperation with other contractors.

Bechtel also may have a role in repair and reconstruction of hospitals, schools, selected government ministry buildings, irrigation facilities and transportation links.

The company has wide experience working overseas, with 47,000 employees on 900 projects in nearly 60 countries.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of the Democratic critics, said the contract showed that "a troubling pattern is beginning to emerge, as some of the most powerful business interests in the country continue to receive these huge contracts without ... open, transparent bidding."

Wyden and others are sponsoring a bill that would require a public explanation of contracts awarded under a limited bidding process.

Other companies invited to bid were Parsons Corp.; Fluor Corp.; Louis Berger Group Inc.; and Washington Group International Inc. A subsidiary of Halliburton Co., which was formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney, was invited to bid but decided instead to seek work as a subcontractor.

Bechtel rose from a family business into a privately held international engineering powerhouse. Its executives have included former Secretary of State George Shultz and ex-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

More recently, President Bush named Ross Connelly, a former Bechtel executive, as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Overseas Private Investment Corp. -- the agency that supports U.S. investment around the globe.

Shultz, interviewed on television, said, "Bechtel, by its track record, will do an excellent job."

The Bechtel Group and its employees have been among the biggest political givers in the general contracting industry, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington-based group that tracks campaign finance.

The company and its workers contributed at least $277,050 to federal candidates and party committees in the last election cycle, about 57 percent to Democrats and 43 percent to Republicans, the center found.

Bechtel gave at least $166,000 to national Republican Party committees, center figures show.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported in January that Bechtel and least one other U.S. company sold Iraq technology that helped build up its military in the 1980s. The story attributed the information to a German journalist with access to a document on Iraq weapons that was turned over to the United Nations.

Bechtel spokesman Jeff Berger said it was "absolutely false" that the company aided the Iraqi military. The company worked on two projects in Iraq in the 1980s: a hydroelectric dam and a petrochemical plant that was to make "garden variety" products including plastics and synthetic rubber, Berger said. The plant was still under construction when Bechtel's involvement ended.

USAID said Bechtel probably would hire subcontractors for many of the projects.

"Through all of its activities, it will also engage the Iraqi population and work to build local capacity," the announcement said.

"Bechtel is honored to have been asked by USAID to help bring humanitarian assistance, economic recovery and infrastructure reconstruction to the Iraqi people," said Tom Hash, president of Bechtel National, Inc.