BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials have crippled scores of water, sewage and electrical plants refurbished with U.S. funds by failing to maintain and operate them properly, wasting millions of American taxpayer dollars in the process, according to interviews and documents.
Hardest hit has been the effort to rebuild the country's water and sewage systems, a multibillion-dollar task considered among the most crucial components of the effort to improve daily life for Iraqis. Of more than 40 such plants run by the Iraqis, not one is being operated properly, according to Bechtel Group Inc., the contractor at work on the project. The power grid faces similar problems. U.S. officials said the Iraqis' inability to properly operate overhauled electrical plants contributed to widespread power shortages this winter. None of the 19 electrical facilities that has undergone U.S.-funded repair work is being run correctly, a senior American advisor said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Rebuilding Iraq -- A headline in Sunday's Section A stated that a coalition memo said water, sewage and power facilities in Iraq rebuilt with U.S. funds were falling into disrepair. The memo did not make a reference to power facilities, whose disrepair was attributed to other sources in the article.
An internal memo by coalition officials in Iraq obtained by The Times says that throughout the country, renovated plants "deteriorate quickly to an alarming state of disrepair and inoperability."
"There is no reason to believe that these initial experiences will not be repeated for the other water and sanitation projects currently underway throughout Iraq," the memo said. "This is the antithesis of our base strategy and a waste not only of taxpayer funds, but it deprives the most needy of safe drinking water and of streets free from raw sewerage."
Iraqis are paying the price. Schoolchildren have to step over rancid brown puddles on their way to classrooms. Families swim in, fish and get their drinking water from the polluted Tigris and Euphrates rivers, leading to high rates of child mortality and water-borne illnesses. People jury-rig pumps in their homes to increase water flow -- poisoning the water further by sucking sewage through cracks in the lines.
U.S. officials blame insufficient training, logistical problems and an indifferent work ethic learned under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis say the Americans excluded them from the early stages of the projects and have not provided adequate funds for upkeep.
The failures have left U.S. and Iraqi officials contemplating a disheartening scenario: After expending billions of dollars and tremendous effort, some of the reconstruction effort might literally go to waste. One official involved in reconstruction estimated that "hundreds of millions" had been squandered because of improper operation and maintenance of U.S.-funded projects.
It is the result, some U.S. officials said, of a misguided effort that has put more focus on dirt-turning than developing the skills Iraqis need to operate and maintain the expensive equipment that is being installed.
A State Department report to Congress on Thursday acknowledged the problem and proposed shifting $607 million to pay for additional operation and maintenance programs to protect U.S. investment in the projects.
"This has been my biggest problem and concern in Iraq," said Mark Oviatt, who oversees water projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development, America's primary overseas development arm. "Americans are investing hundreds of millions in Iraq. The capacity is not there to maintain it."
The problem is complex, touching on issues of sovereignty and the overall U.S. effort to enable Iraqis to run their own government, armed forces and infrastructure.
The U.S. has required the corporations contracted to carry out the reconstruction to train Iraqis to operate the new power and water plants. Most of those corporations are American.
Once facilities are handed over to the Iraqis, however, U.S. officials say they no longer exert control. If the Iraqis run the projects badly, the U.S. can offer advice, but it does not intervene.
"This is their country. This is their water-treatment plant," said Bill Taylor, head of the reconstruction effort for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. "They need to take responsibility. We're not going to be responsible for it. If they run it into the ground, we'll be disappointed. But this is their country."
U.S. officials say they have often been frustrated in their attempts to establish operation and maintenance practices that are standard elsewhere.
There has been little emphasis on maintenance. Under Hussein, this was partly because of patronage: Many people held their jobs because of connections to the regime, not because of their expertise, and didn't have to worry about being held accountable. What little upkeep that did take place was under threat of harsh punishment -- a worry that vanished with the fall of Hussein's regime.
The problem was exacerbated by more than a decade of United Nations and U.S. sanctions that resulted in severe shortages of parts. It was a daily struggle simply to keep plants operating. And many Iraqi engineers fled the country, creating a "brain drain."