US seeks to hand reconstruction over to Iraqis

US trumpets economic and social progress in Iraq: More than 2,000 projects have been completed.

First the White House outlined a strategy of building up Iraq's security forces as the ticket home for US troops. Now the US is promoting a parallel vision that calls for progressively turning over control of US-funded development projects, worth about $21 billion, to Iraqis.

"As Iraqis develop their security capabilities, we will reduce our military presence," said Daniel Speckhard, director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office at a media briefing here Thursday. "We will see that same transition in our reconstruction program ... from one heavily dominated by the United States to one increasingly under Iraqi control."

Coming the day after President Bush's speech in New York on Iraq reconstruction, the briefing underscores the effort by the administration to highlight the "unheralded" economic and social progress. This appears to be a double-headed objective: trumpet the progress, but also the transition from American to Iraqi control.

Examples abound: The US Army Corps of Engineers is turning increasingly to Iraqi engineers and contractors to design and complete sewer and water projects. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is halfway through training 100,000 Iraqi teachers in new methods, while also spearheading development of private social organizations.

But not all elements of Iraq's reconstruction program fit into that picture.

Billions of dollars have been lost to corruption or wasted, according to US government reports. Many Iraqi contractors and workers face death threats and other difficulties for associating with US projects. The number of Iraqi contractors killed now totals several hundred. At the same time, at least one-fifth of US reconstruction funds have been spent on security for projects and workers.

In addition, the initial American message of delivering billions of dollars to build a modern country has fed high expectations and led to Iraqi frustration.

To counter that, US officials offer statistics with all arrows pointing up for services and improvements delivered. More than 2,000 infrastructure projects have been completed, with more than 1,000 under way, according to Brig. Gen Bill McCoy, the US military's reconstruction head in Baghdad. While 5 million Iraqis have potable water before the war, 6 million do today. More than 3 million short-term jobs have been created by US funds, in a country with half of its 25 million people 15 years old or younger.

Still, the new US emphasis on hand- over of reconstruction efforts begs the question: How prepared are Iraqis for the change?

"If we're talking about turning things over to Iraqi individuals ... I'd say it would have a good chance, because Iraqi individuals are quite prepared and capable," says Frederick Barton, codirector of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"But if we're talking about a handover at the level of the big institutions [like the ministries] of the central government, then I think it's doomed. The security problems they face and the lack of preparedness for something like this would make it very difficult," he says.

Some Iraqis express the view that the Americans are packing up before the job is done. At Ambassador Speckhard's briefing Thursday, Iraqi journalists focused almost exclusively on why living conditions weren't better than before the war. "The US never intended to completely rebuild Iraq," but just to "jump-start" the economy, Speckhard said.

For many experts, the single most important issue explaining the failure to meet reconstruction expectations is Iraq's security challenge. "For the most part it's not corruption or incompetence, but inadequate security," says James Dobbins, a former reconstruction envoy who now heads the Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center.

From the beginning the US should have focused on security, Mr. Dobbins says, "while telling the Iraqis that if you work hard you can eventually build yourselves better lives," as he says. "Instead we promised electricity for air conditioners - with the result being the frustrations we have today."

A recent report by the US Inspector General's Office finds that many Iraq reconstruction projects have either been left undone, completed but not made part of an integrated plan, or with no clear plan for future maintenance and operation. The report also cites a spurt in killings of workers and contractors.

At the briefing, General McCoy cited lack of electricity as Iraqis' "most common complaint" - then noted that a sharp drop in hours per day of electricity in Baghdad from 12 in October to four today "is directly related to terrorist attacks" on electrical lines and other infrastructure.

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