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A U.S. 'legacy of waste' in Iraq

The $53-billion reconstruction effort is not without its successes. But poor planning, violence and a failure to consult Iraqis derailed many projects, which may offer lessons in Afghanistan.

August 29, 2010|By Liz Sly, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Khan Bani Saad, Iraq — The shell of a prison that will never be used rises from the desert on the edge of this dusty town north of Baghdad, a hulking monument to the wasted promise of America's massive, $53-billion reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Construction began in May 2004 at a time when U.S. money was pouring into the country. It quickly ran into huge cost overruns. Violence erupted in the area, and a manager was shot dead in his office. The Iraqi government said it didn't want or need the prison. In 2007 the project was abandoned, but only after $40 million of U.S. taxpayer money had been spent.

The prison is just one of the more vivid examples of what is likely to be "a significant legacy of waste" in the reconstruction program, said Stuart Bowen, the head of the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which audited the project as well as many others littering the battered Iraqi landscape.

As U.S. combat operations officially end this week and Washington's reconstruction effort winds up, Iraqis complain that America is leaving little behind to show for an investment that President Bush promised in 2003 would parallel the post- World War II Marshall Plan in its scope and accomplishments.

"I am very sorry because America spent a lot of money without any tangible results," said Ali Baban, Iraq's minister of planning, who is responsible for overseeing the projects now being handed over to the Iraqi government. "The Iraqi people heard a lot about American assistance, but really they didn't touch it or feel it."

Many things went wrong, officials say, looking back on seven years of missteps and successes that could offer lessons for similar efforts in Afghanistan, where reconstruction expenditures are expected to surpass those of Iraq next year.

Under pressure to produce results quickly, the U.S. awarded no-bid contracts to companies with little knowledge of the country they were hired to help. Projects were haphazardly planned and poorly executed. As the insurgency erupted, projects were either destroyed or the costs of providing security to continue them ballooned. And perhaps most important, officials say, Iraqis were not consulted as to which projects actually would be useful.

Baban said the Iraqi government has taken on only 300 of the 1,500 reconstruction projects handed over so far by the U.S. The rest have been "put on the shelf," he said, because they are too shoddy to continue, aren't needed, or are incomplete and lack the documentation such as plans and contracts that the Iraqis would need to finish them.

By no means was all of the money ill spent, Bowen said. About $20 billion has been plowed into training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, an investment he said is generally seen to have paid off, in the form of an army and police force judged reasonably capable of taking over day-to-day security as U.S. combat troops go home.

But when it comes to the broader ambitions of the reconstruction program, success is harder to pin down.

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Perhaps nothing symbolizes the failure of America's aspirations in Iraq more than the lack of electricity. Back in 2003, the newly installed U.S. occupation authority announced plans to increase Iraq's power generation to 6,000 megawatts a day by the summer of 2004, deemed enough to give Iraqis a big boost compared with the Saddam Hussein era.

Six summers and $4.9 billion in U.S. taxpayer money later, Iraqis are sweltering in temperatures that routinely hit 120 degrees with no more than a few hours of electricity a day in most places. Domestic production has peaked at around 5,500 megawatts, public anger is growing, and demonstrations protesting the lack of power have turned violent.

U.S. officials blame the shortfall in part on soaring demand, now estimated at 14,000 megawatts, as consumer goods have flooded into Iraq's newly free market. After more than a decade of sanctions and three wars, Iraq's infrastructure was found to be far more decrepit than originally thought. The postwar looting in 2003 took a huge toll on what remained of the existing power network. And then the insurgency erupted, frequently targeting U.S. efforts to get the network going.

But mistakes were made too, said Iraq's deputy electricity minister, Raad Haras. Only 20% of a network of U.S.-built distribution stations in Baghdad's Sadr City district are functioning; the rest were either substandard or blown up by insurgents, he said. A power plant in southern Baghdad is operating at 50% capacity because it wasn't designed to withstand Iraq's searing temperatures.

"They didn't consult us," he said. "They sometimes did a good job, but sometimes not."

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The story was similar in other sectors. A recent audit cites the example of an unfinished slaughterhouse in Basra — price tag $5.6 million — that was undertaken without securing a supply of water to wash away the blood.

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