Quick school fixes won few Iraqi hearts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US government lists renovations done on 2,356 Iraqi schools in a $70 million effort as one of its major accomplishments. The idea behind it was to meet a pressing Iraqi need and quickly win goodwill from a wide swath of the population.

But many Iraqis, like Mustafa Ibrahim al-Jubari, weren't won over. Mr. Jubari is the deputy principal of the Zam Zam elementary school (named after a sacred freshwater well in Mecca). His two-story building in northern Baghdad smells far from fresh. Jubari points to a four-month-old paint job already peeling, a roof that was caulked but leaks, and new porcelain toilet bowls installed on top of backed-up sewage lines. "You're lucky that school has been out for a few weeks,'' he says. "When they're here, the whole place stinks."

Though a tiny piece of the more than $18.6 billion committed by the US to Iraq, the money spent on Iraqi schools, and their poor state, ties together much that's gone wrong here, past and present, as the June 30 handover approaches. Critics of US-led reconstruction efforts say it has been slow to come, poorly targeted, and occasionally littered with waste.

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To be sure, the real problems at Zam Zam, built in the early 1960s, aren't America's fault. Like almost every other piece of domestic infrastructure, the school suffered decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein, who diverted resources to fight two destructive foreign wars and to cronies to shore up his regime.

Bechtel Corp., which oversaw the work at Zam Zam and about 1,300 other schools, points out that its contract, part of a larger $1 billion contract to fix Iraqi infrastructure, didn't include money for long-term problems like sewage.

Yet amid a construction program focused on the long-term, the schools program was one of the few designed to touch many Iraqi lives quickly. Education under Mr. Hussein was undermined by indoctrination, so it was a perfect symbol of the US program to transform Iraq's present and future. But few Iraqis ended up appreciating the effort. "My kids are still on rickety desks in a broken-down school,'' says Uday Jabbar Mahmoud, the father of three who works as a security guard in Baghdad. "We're not seeing any reconstruction. We hear that millions have been spent, but nothing we can touch."

Thanoon Hussein, an engineer at the Education Ministry who checked the work at Zam Zam, says no documents were filed with the ministry on the school by Bechtel or its subcontractor, Al-Assem. He says the average amount Bechtel spent per school was $40,000. "I'd be amazed if $10,000 was spent at Zam Zam."

"We're grateful that the US and Bechtel tried to help us,'' says Nazar Mikhael, the ministry's chief engineer. "But they didn't coordinate with us." Mr. Mikhael says about half of the schools worked on by Bechtel suffer from shoddy work.

"The contracting process was scandalous to say the least - some of these things are subcontracted six times,'' says Isam al-Khafaji, a former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) reconstruction adviser who runs Iraq Revenue Watch, a nonprofit that tracks spending here.

In a press release, Bechtel says that of 52 formal complaints, only 27 schools have required additional work, 2 percent of the schools it renovated. The company says complaints it didn't consult with Iraqis are unfair: the relevant Iraqi institutions were "not yet operational because their facilities had been looted and their personnel dispersed by the conflict" when it started work last year.

Whatever the extent of the problems with the school renovation program, they illustrate one of the fundamental philosophical dilemmas to confront US administrators here. Spending money fast tends to breed waste. Going slow is safer, but progress is less apparent.

"There was a great plan for the war but they failed to plan for the peace,'' says Sean O'Sullivan, who runs Jumpstart, a nongovernmental organization that employs about 3,000 Iraqis to demolish war-damaged government buildings and build public housing. He says the US should have focused on short-term projects to get lots of Iraqis back to work and make identifiable progress.

Some senior CPA officials agree that money wasn't lined up fast enough to show the value of liberation. "Would there have been less violence if we had been able to get money spent and made progress more quickly? Probably,'' says a Baghdad-based Army civil affairs officer. "There was a window of opportunity to win Iraqis over that we didn't exploit."

The Bush administration allotted less than $1 billion to reconstruction before the invasion, hoping Iraqi oil revenue and functioning ministries would address the country's needs. "The expectation was that functioning institutions would step into the breach,'' says a CPA official. "They should have, but they didn't."

In September, with violence spreading, Congress approved the $18.6 billion aid package for Iraq, to be supervised by the CPA. But that money has only trickled out. By the middle of June, roughly $400 million had been spent. CPA officials note that delays were unavoidable given the insecurity and extensive government oversight. "This program is one of the most audited in government history," says John Procter, a spokesman for the CPA's Project Management Office. "With the amount of scrutiny and the controls ... we've done an amazing job getting this turned around."

He adds that 136 projects are currently under way, employing about 20,000 Iraqis, and that a huge backlog of contracts have been cleared in recent months. About $5.3 billion of infrastructure spending has now started to flow to contractors, and Mr. Procter predicts that by October most projects will be at full bore, employing about 50,000 Iraqis. "In the course of the next few weeks, you're going to see a rapid increase in employment and ground breaking on new projects."

Electricity remains a sore spot with Iraqis in Baghdad. Though CPA officials say average Iraqi electricity production is now higher than it was before the war, the residents of Baghdad - home to a third of Iraq's 27 million people - are getting about 12 hours of electricity a day, down from 18-20 hours. The CPA decided to redistribute power to towns less favored by Hussein's regime, which had little or no power before the war. Most residents of Baghdad don't know this, and are simply angry. "America was right to replace Saddam,'' says Isam Ali al-Beldawi, a Baghdad doctor. "But we're in the dark half the time."

There are only two other cities in Iraq that have less power today than before the war: Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and Fallujah, both favored by the former strongman and now hotbeds of insurgency.

"We don't measure success by how much we are loved when Ambassador Bremer departs on June 30,'' CPA spokesman Dan Senor said. "Success is measured by Iraqi support for democracy in this country."

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