October 15, 2006
Iraq Rebuilding Plan Redrawn
By Larry Kaplow, Cox International Correspondent
Camp Speicher, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi officials have embarked on a new strategy to reconstruct the country, even as American money for the effort dries up.
Over the past year, the U.S. Embassy has formed teams of soldiers, civilians and engineers sent to provinces to help "coach" local Iraqi officials in choosing and managing projects.
Officials promise the new approach will be more coordinated and popular than the previous top-down, haphazard efforts at reconstruction.
Still, the new approach to rebuilding Iraq will face two old problems: the lack of security and an Iraqi bureaucracy that is corrupt and inefficient. And the money available to do the work under the new plan will be a small fraction of the billions tossed around before.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, several thousand reconstruction projects have been financed with American tax dollars, from small schoolhouses to giant power plants.
But American officials now routinely acknowledge that they relied too heavily on contracts with big foreign firms instead of locals.
Auditors and investigators have turned up numerous cases of fraud and mismanagement, found shoddy work on high-profile projects and shortfalls between what was planned and what was actually built. Security problems and sabotage increased costs and lowered productivity.
Electricity output last week, according to the State Department, was still below prewar levels. Baghdad residents receive about six hours of power a day.
U.S. and Iraqi officials met last week at a military base in Saladin province to launch one of the new advisory groups, known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs.
The Saladin facility is the seventh of 10 such offices opening around the country. Seven will be run by Americans and three by British, Italian and South Korean contingents.
The days of big American spending on reconstruction appear to be over. In the past three years, the rebuilding effort has soaked up the more than $21 billion set aside by Congress -- now nearly all spent or tied up on existing projects -- and billions more from U.S military units and the old regime's stashes.
PRTs are not the only vehicle for reconstruction, but they will be the focus.
"It's a big country so targeting [projects] is really critical," said Frederick Barton, international reconstruction specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The money we've had in Iraq has not really trickled down to Iraqis."
He said the money crunch will be a "jolt," but the program can still work if it makes Iraqis feel like they are setting their own construction priorities and seeing progress. The foreign, oversized nature of some of the previous U.S.-backed projects might have inspired the sabotage that later crippled them, Barton said.
Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the U.S. government's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, cited the new reconstruction teams as key to correcting decades-old Iraqi reliance on central government and fostering efficiency and the rule of law.
But in comments to Congress in August, he warned that, "Currently, the PRT program faces serious challenges, including security threats, insufficient staffing, and limited resources."
U.S. and Iraqi leaders are still pressing donor countries for billions of dollars pledged for specific projects but not yet paid due to concerns about the government's reliability.