Friday, March 4, 2005

The Bush administration’s new strategy of starting so many construction projects that insurgents cannot stop them all has begun to pay off.

Construction payments, after lagging badly last summer, have reached nearly $6 billion in a total pot of about $21 billion, officials at the Pentagon said yesterday.

“Despite the insurgency, we’ve made considerable progress to rebuild Iraqis’ infrastructure in several areas,” said Claude Bolton, an assistant Army secretary who supervises the Pentagon’s Project and Contracting Office (PCO) in Baghdad.

Last year, officials told reporters that the way to beat the insurgents was to start so many projects that the vast majority would get completed. The equation was, too many targets, too few saboteurs.

Mr. Bolton said yesterday that the PCO nearly has surpassed 2,000 construction starts, which is more than two-thirds of all planned starts. “The pace of reconstruction spending or disbursements — paying for work that’s been done, has more than doubled in the last 51/2 months,” Mr. Bolton said. Another official said construction starts stand at 1,955, with 582 completed.

The Bush administration last year was criticized by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for the slow pace in handing out the reconstruction contracts. Along with creating the burgeoning Iraqi security force, reconstruction is considered a vital part of a strategy to put Iraq back on its economic feet and allow 140,000 American troops to leave.

Mr. Bolton and officials in Baghdad, who spoke via teleconference, all asserted that the money is now flowing for projects such as water purification plants, roads, electrical grids, schools and hospitals.

All these remain targets of an increasingly well-organized terrorist insurgency that is attacking both the Iraqi security force and infrastructure at the rate of about 50 incidents daily.

William Taylor, the State Department’s top reconstruction official in Baghdad, said disbursements have now reached $5.8 billion. “It’s been an exciting couple of weeks since the election,” said Mr. Taylor, a reference to the historic Jan. 30 balloting that elected a 275-seat national assembly.

“I won’t say everything is improving, but clearly it seems we have in fact the ability to do a lot of work in multiple areas that we didn’t necessarily have that opportunity before,” said Charles Hess, the Pentagon’s top reconstruction official in Baghdad. “My suspicion is that the insurgents will regroup and then try and figure out other ways to get at the heart of the infrastructure and get at the heart of the democratic process that the Iraqis are trying to institute.”

Providing 24-hour electricity is still not possible, said Mr. Hess. He said two new generation plants in the town of Baiji will go on line soon. But obsolete plants have been shut down so workmen can replace parts.

Insurgents have blown up the oil pipe lines that feed some plants. They also attacked the work force in Baiji, killing one worker and kidnapping another.

“It’s tough,” Mr. Hess said. “But it is certainly high on our radar screen in terms of things that we need to get done. … Clearly, the insurgents understand the value of the electricity infrastructure as being a high-value target for them in terms of making the lives of the Iraqi people miserable. … I give a lot of credit to our colleagues in the contracting community who have withstood ambush, death of principal supervisors on site, kidnappings, and have still come back to help us get these plants online.”

Brig. Gen. Thomas Bostick, who commands the Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq, said the giant turbine at the power-generating Hadithah dam had not received basic maintenance in nearly 20 years. “It’s that sort of neglect that has gone on for many years here, that the Iraqi government is now playing catch-up with,” he said.

He said the prewar electricity demand has surged from 5,000 megawatts daily to 8,000. “That’s because the Iraqi people are able to buy televisions and computers and air conditioners and heaters, things that they couldn’t do until democracy and freedom opened up in this country,” Gen. Bostick said.

Yesterday, existing plants were able to generate 3,850 megawatts, still below the preinvasion demand. Most Iraqis live in a system of rationed electricity.

In Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces crushed an insurgency last summer, the coalition has put 12,000 Iraqis to work on $300 million worth of projects, including water purification and sewage treatment.

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