U.S. international aid officials said Friday their reconstruction program in Iraq is making good headway despite security problems and lack of media coverage of its successes. The $18 billion program is by far the largest ever undertaken by U.S. Agency for International Development (AID).
Officials of the aid agency say that despite insurgent activity in the Sunni Triangle of central Iraq, U.S.-funded aid projects are gaining momentum, and proceeding unimpeded in large parts of the country including some Sunni areas.
At a State Department news conference, Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios said the agency has now spent, or obligated, nearly two thirds of the 18 billion dollar Iraq reconstruction package approved by Congress late last year.
The program is the largest ever run by AID, far eclipsing a U.S. economic aid program for Egypt, which at peak levels a few years ago was worth about $1 billion annually.
Mr. Natsios said the effort has, among other things, repaired or rebuilt 2,500 Iraqi schools, boosted nationwide electrical output to levels above those prevailing before the U.S.-led invasion, and made major strides in restoring water and sewage systems that had largely collapsed in the final years of the Saddam Hussein regime.
The AID chief said more than three and a half billion dollars in aid money has now been spent, putting tens of thousands of Iraqis to work.
He called the achievement, in the face of security problems and rigorous accounting requirements amazing, and said agency staffers in Iraq are indignant that it has not been widely reported on:
"I get angry sometimes, I have to say, and our staff does. Some of our staff did not support the war, and they get emotionally upset when they see the coverage. Because they say we know what we are doing. These are people who are out in the field for a year and they come back and they say, 'How come nothing we're doing is being reported anywhere?'" he asked.
Mr. Natsios said the aid agency has about 200 staff members in Iraq, about one-third of them Americans and the rest Iraqis or other nationals.
He said while one employee, a Palestinian had been kidnapped and released, there have been no casualties attributed to the insurgency and that most agency activities were proceeding without interruption.
AID officials estimate that between six and 20 percent of agency spending is going to security, with the proportion varying widely depending on the nature and location of the projects.
The agency's Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Near East, James Kunder, said under questioning security costs are trending upward but he insisted they have not become excessive:
"If it takes an extra 20 percent to keep Iraqi children alive, pardon me for getting emotional, because some butchers are willing to kill the people delivering the health-care services, I fail to see why that's considered an inappropriate use of the taxpayers' dollars," he said.
Mr. Natsios said AID employees had been working in Fallujah until about two weeks before the U.S.-led military operation last month that cleared insurgents out of the central Iraqi town.
He said he expects the agency to return very shortly and in the meantime is providing humanitarian assistance to Fallujah residents displaced by the fighting.