US reconstruction 'successes' in Iraq falling apart

A government inspector report finds sectarian violence, corruption major factors in the disrepair.

A report by the federal office overseeing US reconstruction in Iraq says that of eight rebuilding projects, costing some $150 million and previously declared successes, seven are now in disrepair or have been abandoned.

The New York Times writes that the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), which released its quarterly report to Congress Monday, found that the "seven projects were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting, and expensive equipment that lay idle."

The United States has previously admitted, sometimes under pressure from federal inspectors, that some of its reconstruction projects have been abandoned, delayed or poorly constructed. But this is the first time inspectors have found that projects officially declared a success — in some cases, as little as six months before the latest inspections — were no longer working properly.
The inspections ranged geographically from northern to southern Iraq and covered projects as varied as a maternity hospital, barracks for an Iraqi special forces unit and a power station for Baghdad International Airport.

Among the problems the inspectors found were almost $9 million worth of airport electrical generators that were non-functional, a newly built but non-functional water treatment plant, and an incinerator at the maternity hospital that sat unused because staff could not locate the key to its room.

The Times adds that SIGIR officials said that the eight sites reviewed were picked in an attempt to simulate a random sampling of reconstruction efforts, but that a truly random sample was impossible as many projects were in areas too unsafe to visit.

Bloomberg notes that the audit, which can be found on the SIGIR website, supports the claim that Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen made in earlier reviews of a "sustainment gap" in projects that were built by the US but need to be maintained by Iraqis. Mr. Bowen said in the latest report that this gap would result in the projects' usefulness being "significantly shortened" if not addressed.

Of all the reconstruction efforts, Bowen told The Washington Post, "electricity has the longest way to go," as the Iraqi power system is now producing less energy than it did under Saddam Hussein.

Before the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq's power system produced 4,500 megawatts a day with an aging infrastructure in which 85 percent of power plants were at least 20 years old, the report said. Reconstruction officials initially hoped to increase daily output to 6,750 megawatts by the summer of 2004, a target later lowered to 6,000 megawatts. But in the most recent quarter, Iraq generated only 3,832 megawatts a day.
The shortage was particularly acute in Baghdad. Before the war, the city received an average of 16 to 24 hours of power a day. Last spring, Baghdad averaged eight hours of electricity a day. This year, during the last week of March, the city received only 6.5 hours a day. The rest of the country, however, received an average of 14 hours of power a day.

The BBC writes that William Lynch, the acting director of the US State Department's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, responded to the report by saying that several of the issues that it cited were the responsibility of Iraqis, not the US.

"Recommendations such as how much water to use in cleaning floors [...] could be deemed as an intrusion on, or attempt to micro-manage operations of an Iraqi entity that we have no controlling interest over," William Lynch said.

However, Rick Barton of the Washington-based research organization Center for Strategic and International Studies told The New York Times that the Iraqi neglect indicated by the SIGIR report is typical of reconstruction in developing countries when local parties are not involved in the projects' planning.

"What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities," Mr. Barton said. "If you don't have those elements it's an extension of colonialism and generally it's resented."
Mr. Barton, who has closely monitored reconstruction efforts in Iraq and other countries, said the American rebuilding program had too often created that resentment by imposing projects on Iraqis or relying solely on the advice of a local tribal chief or some "self-appointed representative" of local Iraqis.

In March, The Christian Science Monitor reported that a $2-million power generator meant to supply a Baghdad neighborhood is sitting idle because the Ministry of Electricity rejected it, saying it was not built to specifications, according to the US commander overseeing the district. But the Monitor also noted that sectarian divides may also be responsible for reconstruction problems, like those in the mostly Sunni Karkh district in Baghdad.

At the Karkh school board, Maj. Chip Daniels asks the administrator to give him a list of priority projects for the area's 20 schools, some of which were badly damaged in the recent fighting.
She tells him that she has been prohibited by the Ministry of Education, which is headed by a Shiite, from doing just that. She says that he must get it from the ministry himself. Instead, she asks him for money so that she can buy fuel for the in-house generator that powers her office.
"Do something for us, get us fuel. Help us. We spend half the time writing official memos by hand. Make us a gift," says Sajida al-Attar, sitting in the dark in her office with two associates.

Similarly, a contractor hired to work on an offline water-treatment plant in the Karkh neighborhood rarely shows up because his employees, mostly Shiites from Sadr City, are afraid to enter Karkh. Major Daniels, however, did say that he saw encouraging signs during his time in the Haifa Street area in which he is stationed, and that he remains optimistic that reconstruction efforts there will succeed.

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