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The Conflict in Iraq

Everyone Wants a Piece of the $18-Billion Man in Iraq

Rebuilding czar from U.S. has little to show for efforts. Better times are coming, he says.

August 23, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

HILLAH, Iraq — The man with $18 billion to spend is taking a beating.

Where's the money to rebuild Iraq? The jobs for broke Iraqis? The promised health clinics and schools, bridges and dams, electricity and clean water?

Retired Rear Adm. David Nash gives the same answer to the skeptics who quiz him on America's long-delayed effort to rebuild Iraq: Better times are coming.

"This country is going to take off," said Nash, 61, the head of the U.S. effort to rebuild a nation devastated by a dozen years of sanctions, three wars and a simmering insurgency.

After long delays and broken deadlines, there are signs that the largest reconstruction effort since World War II's Marshall Plan is poised to get rolling.

New and refurbished power stations are starting up weekly. Private contractors are finishing plans for building thousands of schools, clinics and infrastructure projects. Iraqi jobs in the program have soared from 5,300 daily employees to more than 88,000.

But at least for now, there is little to show on the ground. Less than $900 million has been spent of $18.4 billion that Congress approved in November. Of 2,800 projects designed to make life better for Iraqis -- and in the process, safer for U.S. soldiers -- only 214 are under construction.

Ordinary Iraqis and U.S. officials have expressed growing concern that although the U.S. aid is finally arriving, it may have come too late to win the sympathy of the people, who have endured more than a year of haphazard electricity, water and other essential services.

A program that was supposed to convince the Iraqi people that U.S. money and know-how would improve their lives has instead left many bitter and no better off materially than they were under Saddam Hussein.

"You need to put more people to work to make them happy," said Muthina Hussein, 27, an engineer who found a $250-a-week job on a U.S. reconstruction project on a military base. "The bad guys are saying America lies. They say it's just like what Saddam did."

It is little wonder, then, that Nash found more complaints than praise on a tour that provided a glimpse into the pitfalls of the U.S.-funded restoration.

A conference room for a branch of the U.S. Embassy by the banks of a tributary of the Euphrates River in Hillah was the first stop on Saturday's helicopter tour of south-central Iraq, a trip intended to show Nash some of the fruits of his efforts over the last year.

Instead, Nash ran smack into Anton Smith, who oversees the embassy branch and rebuilding efforts in Najaf, where cleric Muqtada Sadr's latest rebellion against U.S. and Iraqi forces is in its third week. U.S. efforts have produced almost nothing in the troubled region, though some small projects have taken shape.

"It's important that we raise some earth," Smith pleaded with Nash. "Najaf's need is immediate. It's big. We need to move quickly to make sure we don't lose them again. It's in our national interests to win their hearts and minds."

Smith, an intense State Department official, was most concerned that Nash give more autonomy in decision-making to local U.S. officials with more direct contact with regional needs and conditions.

"What we need to have is the authority and autonomy to make it work," said Smith, upset by what he called redundancies and waste. "If all the triggers have to be pulled in Baghdad, we're going to be frustrated."

Tight restrictions and high-level interference have dogged the effort. Congress demanded close control of the money spent in Iraq, a reaction in part to the freewheeling spending that accompanied the first months of the U.S. invasion. Pentagon officials often second-guessed decisions made in Iraq.

Like a pendulum swinging back, the new restrictions hamstrung U.S. officials in Baghdad from making major changes to a plan of dams, bridges and roads drawn up nearly a year ago after less than a month's study of Iraq's needs.

The State Department is expected to submit a request to Congress in the coming days to change some restrictions. But for now, Nash told Smith, there was limited flexibility.

Nash, who retired to a job at Parsons Brinckerhoff, a major engineering firm, before becoming the Iraq reconstruction czar in July 2003, was brought on board by top Pentagon officials in part because of his rectitude. He is widely regarded as a man who plays by the book, competent and careful.

So far, Iraq's realities have not shaken his intent on following Washington's rules.

"Autonomy scares me.... Nobody has autonomy," he told Smith. "There's some boundaries we have to live with whether we like it or not."

Next on his visit was a 15-minute drive in armored cars across dusty roads to Camp Babylon, headquarters for the Polish soldiers who control south-central Iraq as part of U.S.-led forces.

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