The Iraq money pit

Despite hundreds of millions already spent on renovations, much infrastructure is still in shambles. Is Washington, or are Iraqis themselves, to blame?

Published April 11, 2005 11:04PM (EDT)

The Shiite protestors who took to the streets in Baghdad this weekend had one message to convey: Americans out of Iraq. But U.S. contractors tasked with the long-term job of rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure may have been wondering if the demonstrators really knew what they were asking for. According to a report in the L.A. Times, U.S. officials working in Iraq say that in spite of hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars spent on renovating dozens of electrical, sewage, and water treatment plants, poor management by Iraqis themselves has prevented a single one from working properly.

In a recent memo, the officials said that the plants renovated by U.S. contractors "deteriorate quickly to an alarming state of disrepair and inoperability" and that "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. 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."

The officials attribute the breakdowns to a lack of technical expertise, poor training and lax work ethic among Iraqis, regarded as a legacy of the previous regime. Iraqi officials counter that many existing plants simply can't operate without more funding.

Various projects, from schools and hospitals to bridges and oil fields, also compete for the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds approved by Congress, and have seen some success: USAID and Bechtel, working together, have completed 777 reconstruction projects to date, nearly half of which are schools.

Meanwhile, the State Department announced last week that it intends to divert $832 million from utility plants to job creation and training for Iraqis, and USAID has asked Congress for an additional $25 million to train a group of Iraqis to manage the renovated plants.

But some Iraqis in charge of rebuilding the country now say that an early decision to contract the bulk of operations to U.S. firms was a mistake, because it denied Iraqis the opportunity to take a leadership role and gain technical training. The situation could have been prevented, they say, if Washington had planned better for the reconstruction, and had been more willing to approach Iraqis and the rebuilding of their country with an open mind. U.S. officials "made a lot of decisions themselves, and the decisions were wrong," Baghdad Mayor Alaa Tamimi said, according to the L.A. Times. "This is our country. It's our city. They didn't accept that."

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

MORE FROM Julia Scott

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Middle East War Room