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Nov 21st, 2009

U.S. Fears Iraq Development Projects May Go to Waste

Image: Water treatment plant in Baghdad's Sadr City
An Iraqi worker at a new water treatment plant in Baghdad’s Sadr City. The $65 million plant is meant to provide water for 200,000 people — just a tenth of the population of the vast slum on Baghdad’s eastern ouskirts. (Photo credit: Erik De Castro / Reuters)

By Timothy Williams

Nov. 21, 2009


BAGHDAD — In its largest reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan, the United States government has spent $53 billion for relief and reconstruction in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, building tens of thousands of hospitals, water treatment plants, electricity substations, schools and bridges.

But there are growing concerns among American officials that Iraq will not be able to adequately maintain the facilities once the Americans have left, potentially wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and jeopardizing Iraq’s ability to provide basic services to its people.

The projects run the gamut — from a cutting-edge, $270 million water treatment plant in Nasiriya that works at a fraction of its intended capacity because it is too sophisticated for Iraqi workers to operate, to a farmers market that farmers cannot decide how to share, to a large American hospital closed immediately after it was handed over to Iraq because the government was unable to supply it with equipment, a medical staff or electricity.

The concern about the sustainability of the projects comes as Iraq is preparing for pivotal national elections in January and as rebuilding has emerged as a political imperative in Iraq, eclipsing security in some parts of the country as the main anxiety of an electorate frustrated with the lack of social, economic and political progress. American forces are scheduled to begin withdrawing in large numbers next year. …

Other facilities, including hospitals, schools and prisons built with American funds, have remained empty long after they were completed because there were not enough Iraqis trained to operate them.

“As large-scale construction projects — power plants, water-treatment systems and oil facilities — have been completed, there has been concern regarding the ability of Iraqis to maintain and fund their operations once they are handed over to the Iraqi authorities,” said a recent analysis prepared for Congress by the Congressional Research Service.

The Government Accountability Office and the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction have also issued reports in the past several months about the potential failure of American-financed projects once they are transferred to Iraq.

Stuart W. Bowen Jr., inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said his watchdog agency had “regularly raised concerns” about the potential waste of U.S. taxpayer money resulting from reconstruction projects that were poorly planned, badly transferred, or insufficiently sustained by the Iraqi government. …

In the meantime, the Americans — military and civilian reconstruction specialists alike — continue to depart in large numbers, taking with them their money, equipment and expertise.

Despite the $53 billion spent by the United States, many Iraqis have criticized the rebuilding effort as wasteful. Ali Ghalib Baban, Iraq’s minister of planning, said it had had no discernable impact. “Maybe they spent it,” he said, “but Iraq doesn’t feel it.”

Iraqis, for whom bombed-out buildings are an unremarkable part of urban existence, also say they have seen little evidence of rebuilding.

“Where is the reconstruction?” asked Sahar Kadhum, a resident of Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. “The city is sleeping on hills of garbage.”

Indeed, despite the billions in American funds, more than 40 percent of Iraqis still lack access to clean water, according to the Iraqi government. Ninety percent of Iraq’s 180 hospitals do not have basic medical and surgical supplies, according to the aid organization Oxfam. Iraqis also have disproportionately high rates of infant mortality, cerebral palsy and cancer.

Exacerbating the problem, Iraqi and American officials say is that hundreds of thousands of Iraq’s professional class have fled or been killed during the war, leaving behind a population with too few doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists and others.

In Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, a recently completed $4 million maternity hospital built by the Americans is open, but the staff members are unable to operate much of its equipment. …

In Falluja, west of Baghdad, a $98 million wastewater treatment plant built by the United States serves only one-third of the homes it was intended to because the Iraqi government has not supplied it with sufficient fuel, “raising the possibility that the U.S. effort has been wasted,” according to a special inspector general’s report.

At Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad, which had been the American military’s largest medical center in the country, Iraqi security forces took up guard positions even before the conclusion of a ceremonial transfer to the Iraqi government last month. The hospital, however, has been closed because the Health Ministry lacks the staff and equipment to reopen it, even though the American military said it left $7.9 million in equipment behind.

Iraq’s most notorious reconstruction project might be the $165 million Basra Children’s Hospital in southern Iraq. Championed by Laura Bush when she was the first lady, its completion has been delayed by more than four years, and the project is $115 million over budget. …

“It was supposed to open in March, but I don’t think it will be ready,” said Ahmed Qassim, the hospital’s director. He added: “Maybe July, but we don’t know. Maybe not July.”


Related reports on this site

Afghanistan War Cost Too High (Nov. 13, 2010)

Iraqi Neglect Costs U.S. Taxpayers (April 29, 2009)

Trillion-Dollar Wars Since 9/11 (March 30, 2009)

Empty Prison in Iraq a $40Million ‘Failure’ (July 28, 2008)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — November 21, 2008

Iraq Protest
A protester uses his shoe to strike an effigy of President Bush, as thousands of followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr converge on Firdous Square in central Baghdad, Iraq, for a protest against a proposed U.S.-Iraqi security pact, Nov. 21, 2008. (Photo credit: Karim Kadim / AP)

Iraqis Burn Bush in Effigy

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had stomped on and burned an effigy of President George Bush in the same central Baghdad square where Iraqis beat a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein with their sandals five years earlier. Chanting and waving flags, thousands of Iraqis filled Firdous Square to protest a proposed U.S.-Iraqi security pact that would allow American troops to stay for three more years.

8 Responses to “Iraq Projects Down the Tubes”
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