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Much of Iraq still in ruin as U.S. builders leave
Close behind U.S. tanks and troops, America's big builders invaded Iraq three years ago. Now the reconstruction funds are drying up and they're pulling out, leaving completed projects and unfulfilled plans in the hands of an Iraqi government unprepared to manage either.
The Oct. 1 start of the U.S. government's 2007 fiscal year signaled an end to U.S. aid for new reconstruction in Iraq.
"We're really focusing now on helping Iraqis do this themselves in the future," said Daniel Speckhard, reconstruction chief at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Many Iraqi government ministries aren't able yet to pick up where the Americans leave off, he said: "They're very bad at sustainment in terms of programs and projects."
In 2003, Congress committed almost $22 billion to a three-year program to help Iraq climb back from the devastation of war, the looting that followed and years of neglect under U.N. economic sanctions and Saddam Hussein's rule.
The money, the biggest such U.S. effort since the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe, was invested in thousands of projects, large and small, such as rebuilt oil pipelines and upgraded power plants, schoolbooks, new ambulances and nurseries to replenish Iraq's groves of date palms.
But U.S. and Iraqi planners, engineers and construction crews faced major obstacles in a landscape wracked by anti-U.S. insurgency and Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, in an economy bled by corruption, and in a nation abandoned by thousands of its skilled hands and shunned by much of the world.
In this dangerous climate, almost $6 billion of the U.S. reconstruction aid was diverted to training Iraqi police and troops and to other security costs, adding to what U.S. auditors now dub a "reconstruction gap."
Fewer than half the electricity and oil projects planned have been completed, internal documents of the U.S. reconstruction command show.
Scores of other projects were canceled, and the "gap" can be seen on the streets of Baghdad, where people spend most of their day without electricity, and spend hours in line for gasoline and other scarce fuels.
Although the Americans will complete jobs already under contract, probably into 2008, many participating in the U.S. program are disappointed Congress chose not to underwrite essential new projects.
"I always thought there would be value in having more money. (Other) donors haven't been coming in," noted Maj. Gen. William McCoy, senior U.S. Army engineer overseeing reconstruction. Of almost $14 billion pledged in 2003 by non-U.S. donors, barely $3 billion has been disbursed.
From one key Iraqi's perspective, much of the reconstruction funds were misspent.
"Huge amounts of funds were wasted because of bureaucracy, corruption, incapacity and the spending of money on unimportant projects," said Ali Baban, planning minister in Iraq's five-month-old government.
The auditors say, however, most projects show good workmanship and quality control.
U.S. officials point particularly to what Speckhard called a "very significant success in helping the oil sector get back on its feet" — vital to Iraq's future, since more than 90 percent of its government revenues come from oil sales.
It was a struggle against sabotage, equipment breakdowns and oil smugglers, but oil production, which scraped bottom at 1.4 million barrels a day in January, is again approaching prewar levels.
The greatest problems plague the giant U.S. effort to restore Iraqi electricity.
By adding 2,710 megawatts — more than the output of America's Hoover Dam — U.S. engineers have boosted Iraq's potential generating capacity above 7,000. But power hasn't flowed at anywhere near that capacity, and seldom topped even the paltry level of prewar Iraq, about 4,500 megawatts. Baghdad gets no more than four to six hours of electricity a day.