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October 22, 2005

Two Years Later, U.S. Still Can't Keep the Lights On

by Jim Lobe

The reconstruction of Iraq is failing rapidly despite repeated claims of progress by the George W. Bush administration, according to a number of U.S. officials and reports released here this week.

Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman issued a report that found reconstruction efforts in the occupied Arab country have consistently fallen short of the objectives set by the administration two years ago.

This view was echoed by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, in a congressional hearing Thursday.

Bowen, whose office issued several reports and audits in the past about Iraq, said that the security situation is sapping money and energy out of the reconstruction effort and that much less money than originally envisioned will be spent on Iraqi projects.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog agency, about 30 billion dollars was authorized through August 2005 to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and train and equip its security forces. But Bowen said Washington will have to be more realistic about what can actually be spent of that amount.

"We are going to provide something less than that," Bowen said pointing to a significant gap between the original plans and what is being achieved on the ground in Iraq.

The GAO itself says that only 13 billion dollars of the 30 billion dollars were actually disbursed so far.

"The existence of this gap may subject the U.S. to criticism for not fulfilling what was perceived as a promised number of projects," Bowen said.

The Waxman report assesses reconstruction work in three key sectors of the Iraqi economy – oil, electricity and water. It found that the administration's actual results on the ground are far less than what is publicized.

"Oil production remains below pre-war levels, electricity production is unreliable and well below the goal of 6,000 megawatts of peak electricity output, and a third of Iraqis still lack access to potable water," says the report. "Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent, but there is little to show for the expenditures in Iraq."

When the Bush administration asked Congress to appropriate over 20 billion dollars for reconstruction efforts in 2003, it promised to use the money to provide clean drinking water to 90 percent of Iraqis, boost power production significantly above pre-war levels, and restore oil production to pre-war levels.

But oversight agencies like the GAO and Inspectors General (IGs) have published more than 80 reports on Iraq reconstruction and other aspects of U.S. support for post-war Iraq, many of them critical.

This week, the GAO said that even in the case of completed projects, the Washington-backed Iraqi government has been unable to sustain rebuilt infrastructure due to shortages of power, trained staff and supplies.

As of July, water and sanitation projects worth 52 million dollars either were not operating or were operating at low capacity due to these problems, GAO said.

Rep. Christopher Shays, chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security in the U.S. House of Representatives, said that Congress is witnessing a rise in the cost of projects even though many of them have not been completed.

"Electric and water projects are being scaled back, while estimates of the costs to complete the same projects continue to escalate," Shays said.

The difficult security situation in Iraq and the rising Iraqi resistance have been cited as the main reasons for the slow progress in the reconstruction efforts. Billions of dollars have been diverted away from rebuilding projects in order to pay private security contractors and to train and equip Iraqi forces more rapidly.

Initial estimates of security costs have nearly tripled from less than 10 percent of total project expenses to almost 30 percent.

A number of U.S. legislators who previously backed the war are now criticizing the slow pace of progress in Iraq and have questioned whether it is fueling further discontent among Iraqis and providing more recruits to the Iraqi resistance.

The GAO says that initial estimates of Iraq's needs assumed that reconstruction would take place in a peacetime environment, and therefore did not include additional security costs.

Some of the official reports say that U.S. goals are not being achieved due to poor planning, lack of accurate costs estimates and operational constraints on top of the extra costs imposed by the lack of security.

Waxman also criticized what he called the administration's "flawed contracting approach."

He said that instead of encouraging competition, the administration awarded large no-bid contracts to favored companies like Halliburton. Then it handed over major oversight responsibilities to private contractors with potential conflicts of interest.

Joseph Christoff of the GAO faulted the initial assessments of the state of Iraq's infrastructure, saying it was more severely degraded than originally estimated, and that widespread looting and sabotage compounded the problem.

But it appears that many U.S. politicians are finally taking note of the slow progress in the reconstruction effort and the political price-tag it may carry both at home and in Iraq.

"That cycle of rosy estimates and stunted outcomes exacts high political costs as well," Shays said. "Limited visible progress in improving basic services frustrates Iraqis, who wonder why a liberating coalition that conquered their nation in less than two months can't keep the lights lit after two years."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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