Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The extra $1.2 billion of reconstruction aid in President Bush’s Iraq plan won’t go far in a country where electricity output still barely meets half the demand and oil production is falling short by almost 1 million barrels a day.

A companion part of the plan, to expand U.S. aid teams scattered across Iraq, may falter because of a shortage of volunteers. Some say the Bush administration may have to start ordering civilian U.S. government employees into the war zone, as was done during the Vietnam War.

“The fact of the matter is that the State Department has had a hard time filling current manning levels on these teams,” said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, a specialist in postwar reconstruction at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The bulk of U.S. reconstruction aid was delivered from 2003 to 2005, when almost $22 billion poured into Iraq. As violence spread, some aid was diverted to Iraqi army and police forces, and much of the rest was spent on private security for rebuilding projects. Analysts had estimated that Iraq needed $55 billion to recover from war, mass looting and years of economic deterioration.

By fiscal 2007, new reconstruction aid had dwindled to $750 million. On Wednesday night, Mr. Bush proposed adding $1.2 billion to that. By comparison, Washington is spending about $100 billion a year on the war itself.

“It is symbolic, at best, and is unlikely to have substantial impact in Iraq,” Gordon Adams, a budget analyst at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said of the Bush aid proposal.

In its December recommendations, the Iraq Study Group had called for boosting U.S. reconstruction assistance to $5 billion a year.

For electricity alone, Iraq needs $27 billion to fully rebuild the grid to meet growing power needs, Baghdad’s Electricity Ministry estimates. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that Iraq’s electricity demand averaged 8,210 megawatts last year, but peak generation reached 4,317 megawatts. Baghdad’s residents received six hours of power a day on average during the summer.

The U.S. reconstruction effort added more than 2,000 megawatts of generating capacity to a system that produced 4,200 before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But the grid has been crippled by toppled transmission towers and other sabotage, insurgent attacks, looting, poor maintenance and poor planning.

The GAO reports that 16 of 35 gas turbines that the Americans installed in Iraqi power plants — even though Iraq lacks an extensive natural gas network — are using crude oil or other low-quality fuels, producing as little as half the rated power and causing frequent shutdowns.

“Why did the United States purchase natural gas turbines to generate electricity when the necessary supply of natural gas was not assured in Iraq?” the auditors asked.

Iraq’s own funds for reconstruction must come from oil exports, but the GAO reports that production still falls 900,000 barrels a day short of the U.S. goal of 3 million barrels, and far short of Iraq’s production peak of 3.7 million in the 1970s.

The problems involving oil are similar to those with electricity — insurgents, sabotage, maintenance — but the government oil companies are afflicted also by widespread corruption. The GAO reports that up to 30 percent of Iraq’s fuel products are smuggled out of the country or into the local black market.

Meanwhile, as of August, the Oil Ministry had spent almost none of its $3.5 billion capital budget for 2006 because of weak financial management systems, the GAO said.

As for the U.S. aid coordinators sent to Iraqi provinces, called provincial reconstruction teams, the State Department said it would deploy several hundred additional civilian advisers for that often-dangerous work, and increase the number of teams from 10 to “at least 18.”

The provincial reconstruction teams, which also draw from military ranks and other agencies, got off to a slow start in 2005 and 2006 as the State Department searched for volunteers to staff offices in insurgency-ridden places such as Anbar province. To fill gaps, more military personnel than planned were assigned to the teams.

In an October report, government auditors found that, because of poor security, only four of 13 teams and satellite offices studied were “generally able” to do their work.

In its December report, the Iraq Study Group recommended that, if necessary, civilian agencies use involuntary assignments to fill Iraq positions, as the State Department did with its civilian aid teams in Vietnam during the war that ended there in 1975.

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