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Unfinished Iraq projects leave doubts

Hard behind U.S. tanks and troops, America’s big builders invaded Iraq three years ago. Now the reconstruction funds are drying up and they’re pulling out, leaving both completed projects and unfulfilled plans in the hands of an Iraqi government unprepared to manage either one.

The Oct. 1 start of the U.S. government’s 2007 fiscal year signaled an end to U.S. aid for new Iraq reconstruction.

“We’re really focusing now on helping Iraqis do this themselves in the future,” said Daniel Speckhard, reconstruction chief at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Many Iraqi government ministries aren’t able yet to pick up where the Americans leave off, he said. “They’re very bad at sustainment in terms of programs and projects.”

In 2003, Congress committed almost $22 billion to a three-year program to help Iraq climb back from the devastation of war and the looting that followed, and from years of neglect under U.N. economic sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The money, the biggest such U.S. effort since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, was invested in thousands of projects, large and small, from rebuilt oil pipelines and upgraded power plants to schoolbooks, new ambulances and plant nurseries to replenish Iraq’s groves of date palms.

But the U.S. and Iraqi planners, engineers and construction crews faced major obstacles in a landscape wracked by anti-U.S. insurgency and Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, in an economy bled by corruption, and in a nation abandoned by thousands of its skilled hands and shunned by much of the world.

In this dangerous environment, almost $6 billion of that U.S. reconstruction aid was diverted to training Iraqi police and troops and to other security costs, adding to what U.S. auditors now dub a “reconstruction gap.”

Fewer than half the electricity and oil projects planned have thus far been completed, internal documents of the U.S. reconstruction command show. Scores of other projects were canceled, and the “gap” can be seen in the streets of Baghdad, where people spend most of their day without electricity, and spend hours in line for gasoline and other fuels.

From one key Iraqi’s perspective, much of the money that has gone to reconstruction has been misspent.

“Huge amounts of funds were wasted because of bureaucracy, corruption, incapacity and the spending of money on unimportant projects,” Ali Baban, planning minister in Iraq’s 5-month-old government, said.

In a series of high-profile cases, big names in U.S. engineering and construction – Parsons, Bechtel, Halliburton – were criticized for poor performance. In a recent case, the Special Inspector-General for Iraq Reconstruction last month said renovation of Baghdad’s police academy, overseen by Parsons Corp., was so shoddy that sewage dripped through a new dormitory’s ceilings.

Auditors say, however, that most projects show good workmanship and quality control. American officials point particularly to what Speckhard called a “very significant success in helping the oil sector get back on its feet” – vital to Iraq’s future, since more than 90 percent of its government revenues come from oil sales.

It was a struggle against insurgent sabotage, equipment breakdowns and oil smugglers, but Iraqi oil production, which scraped bottom at 1.4 million barrels a day last January, is again approaching prewar levels, hitting 2.5 million a day in June. It has dropped back slightly since.

Reconstruction officials point, too, to U.S.-financed work on Iraq’s schools – rehabilitation of most of the 12,000 schools needing it, training of more than 100,000 teachers – and to progress in restoring or extending drinking water and sewer lines to more Iraqis. But a U.S. executive recently underscored how the nonstop Sunni-Shiite Muslim bloodshed can obstruct, in sometimes gruesome ways, Iraq’s recovery.

“Water treatment plants have been shut down by the accumulation of dead bodies in canals,” Bechtel’s Cliff Mumm informed a congressional committee.

The greatest problems plague the giant U.S. effort to restore Iraqi electricity.

U.S. engineers have boosted Iraq’s potential generating capacity to over 7,000 megawatts. But power hasn’t flowed at anywhere near that capacity and has seldom topped even the paltry level of prewar Iraq, about 4,500 megawatts. Baghdad suffers especially, getting no more than six hours of electricity a day.

As the U.S. fiscal year ended, the Army congratulated its reconstruction teams on what they’ve accomplished in Iraq. “Never has so much been done, so well and so quickly, by so few,” it said. One measure of sacrifice: At least 575 Iraqi and other contract workers, many in reconstruction, have been killed since 2003.

But huge challenges lie ahead in a country where a third or more of the work force remains unemployed. On electricity alone, the Iraqis estimate they’ll need to find $20 billion more to finish the modernization.


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