Monday, November 20, 2006

When and if the smoke ever clears in Iraq, Pentagon officials say the world finally will see a minor miracle.

“Most Americans don’t understand something equivalent to the Marshall Plan has been accomplished in Iraq,” said Dean G. Popps, principal assistant secretary of the Army for acquisitions, logistics and technology.

The Army is the program manager for $20 billion in U.S. taxpayer money that flowed to Iraq after the 2003 invasion to spur a building boom of more than 4,000 projects.

Amid constant deadly threats from bloodthirsty insurgents, and without a viable Iraqi private contracting sector, the Army Corps of Engineers has supervised the construction of electric grids, health care centers, schools, water and sewage treatment facilities, police stations, academies and border posts.

Not counting the deteriorating security situation, no facet of the Iraq war has received more negative press than the U.S.- and Iraqi-financed reconstruction. The Washington Times, along with other newspapers, has published a series of articles on setbacks and corruption. But, the Pentagon contends there is another storyline.

“It’s quite a heroic story maligned often by the news media,” Mr. Popps said during an interview in his E-Ring Pentagon office. A nearby multicolored map designates hundreds of projects started and completed, from Mosul to Basra.

Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, has issued a steady stream of reports revealing fraud and mismanagement. Perhaps his most damaging finding was that nearly a quarter of $37 billion in United Nations-secured oil money — not U.S. taxpayer funds — shipped to Iraq cannot be traced and was likely stolen.

But Mr. Bowen has said fraud involving U.S. money, while serious, is not widespread and that the huge majority of projects proceeded as required. And, a Bowen report to Congress last summer seemed to back up Mr. Popps’ message of progress.

“Although the story of Iraq reconstruction has been punctuated by shortfalls and deficiencies, the infrastructure overview provided [in] this quarterly report presents a picture of significant progress achieved through a substantial U.S. investment of time, talent and tax dollars in Iraq’s relief and reconstruction.”

Mr. Popps said it is first important to understand what the rebuilding team inherited. U.S. intelligence knew little about the actual state of Iraq’s energy infrastructure and social service network. When the Army Corps of Engineers got on the ground, there was shock:

• The three regional sewage treatments plants in greater Baghdad did not work; raw waste poured into the Tigris River and downstream through villages. Sadr City, the impoverished Shi’ite slum repressed by the ruling Sunni Ba’ath Party, lacked any sewage system. “Some slam the Americans because there is sewage in Sadr City,” said an incredulous Mr. Popps. “Please.”

• Few towns had a central supply of clean water.

• The electrical grid suffered under 1950s technology and disrepair. Saddam Hussein starved the rest of the country of power to give the capital of 6 million about 20 hours a day.

• The country lacked any primary health care facilities; hospitals and schools were run down and lacked supplies. New hospitals had not been built in 20 years. More than half the public health centers remained closed. Of 13,000 schools, more than 10,000 needed significant renovations.

The Pentagon in 2003 summoned American firms to get reconstruction started in the absence of Iraqi ministries that could supervise and a private sector that was in shambles under Saddam’s totalitarian rule.

“The ministries were jammed with people who did nothing,” Mr. Popps said. “They sat around and smoked and drank tea and held ‘worry beads.’ It was an economy based on incompetence and corruption.”

Today, the Pentagon is handing out a score sheet:

• Six new primary care facilities, with 66 more under construction; 11 hospitals renovated; more than 800 schools fixed up; more than 300 police stations and facilities and 248 border control forts.

• Added 407,000 cubic meters per day of water treatment; a new sewage-treatment system for Basra; work on Baghdad’s three plants continues; oil production exceeds the 2002 level of 2 million barrels a day by 500,000.

• The Ministry of Electricity now sends power to Baghdad for four to eight hours a day, and 10 to 12 for the rest of the country. Iraqis are now free to buy consumer items such as generators, which provide some homes with power around-the-clock.

Mr. Popps said all this was accomplished despite a concerted effort by terrorists to bomb construction sites and kill workers. Thursday’s kidnapping of private contractors south of Baghdad illustrates the problem. The State Department was forced to increase spending on security, up to $5 billion of the $20 billion, or risk losing more projects to saboteurs.

The Army Corps has ferried reporters to what it considers successful sites in an effort to get a few positive stories on reconstruction. But rarely do any materialize, Mr. Popps said.

“What has hurt the public perception of reconstruction is incomplete leaks to the media that there is a problem with a particular project,” he said. “What is sexy to reporters is a police station that has urine in the ceiling. That’s what the press prefers to talk about rather than the great successes we have made.”

The “urine” reference was contained in the latest bad news story about reconstruction in Iraq. Mr. Bowen reported in September he was reviewing all projects done by the California-based Parsons Corp. in the aftermath of finding serious plumbing problems at the $75 million Baghdad Police College. Mr. Bowen has criticized Parsons, which uses local Iraqi contractors, on other projects, including primary health care buildings.

The company has cited the violent environment as part of the problem. A Pentagon spokesman said the company made all repairs by an Oct. 6 target at no government cost.

There are two key money amounts devoted to reconstruction: One is $37 billion in cash the U.N. turned over to Iraq in 2003. The second is $36 billion appropriated by Congress, $20 billion of which was the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund. The remaining $16 billion is evenly divided for building the Iraqi security forces and for various military projects, some controlled by U.S. commanders.

In late September, Iraq rebuilders received some praise from Mr. Bowen. He made one of his periodic appearances before the House Government Reform Committee, where Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said there was some good news out of the war-wrecked country.

“You said accurately in your opening statement that not everything is wrong in Iraq, and that’s true,” Mr. Bowen responded. “A fair reading of our full report demonstrably underscores that fact. Indeed, 70 percent of the projects we’ve visited and 80 percent of the money allocated to them indicate that those projects, from a construction perspective, have met what the contract anticipated.”

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