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US Auditors Say Violence in Iraq Hinders Reconstruction

U.S. government auditors say continuing violence in Iraq, and rising costs associated with it, continue to hamper reconstruction, as lawmakers renewed criticisms of government oversight of spending there. Testimony before a congressional committee Tuesday came a day before scheduled appearance on Capitol Hill by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the situation in Iraq.

As they have watched the costs of America's military involvement in Iraq increase since 2003, lawmakers have sharpened their inquiries into how money is being spent.

Renewed questions in a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday refocused attention not only on controversies over alleged waste and fraud connected with contracts and money being spent, but on the implementation of reconstruction.

Citing undeniable progress in Iraq on the political front, (Republican) Congressman Christopher Shays faults what he calls naïve assumptions by U.S. planners, and faulty implementation resulting in escalating costs and scaled back projects:

"That cycle of rosy estimates and stunted outcomes exacts high political costs as well," Mr. Shays says. "Limited visible progress in improving basic services, frustrates Iraqis who wonder why a liberating coalition that conquered their nation in less than two months can't keep the lights lit after two years."

Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General [in the Pentagon] for Iraq reconstruction, says U.S. officials in Iraq are now focusing not only on repairs but also sustainability, but acknowledges a gap between what was once seen as possible and what is now realistically achievable.

"There has been substantial de-scoping (revising downward) because of reprogramming and shifting of funds to security," he says.

Howard Krongard, Inspector General in the State Department, says the amount of money needed to ensure the security of those working on reconstruction projects has gone up sharply.

"Security issues detract from the efficiency and productivity of all project activity and can occasionally call into question the value of proceeding with an activity at all," he says.

In its latest report on Iraq, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) [the independent investigative arm of Congress] says it is unclear how U.S. efforts are helping Iraqis obtain clean water, reliable electricity or competent health care, adding the United States must do more to help sustain the ability of Iraqis to maintain various facilities.

GAO official Joseph Christoff says initial estimates of what it would take to rebuild and stabilize Iraq did not take into account the intensity of the insurgency, and had this pessimistic assessment of the capabilities of Iraqi police and security forces:

"Iraqi forces have made progress in developing the skills needed to assume control of counter-insurgency operations, however they will not be able to operate independently for some time because they need logistical capabilities, ministry [organization] capacity, and command and control and intelligence structures," Mr. Christoff says.

Frustration over what many lawmakers see as a disconnect between upbeat official reports on the training of Iraqis, and continuing violence, could be heard in this exchange between Mr. Christoff and New York Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

MALONEY: "Have you tried to understand why the increase in violence even though the amount of policing and military forces increasing, why is the violence getting worse?"

CHRISTOFF: "Because you still have a very capable and lethal insurgency in Iraq."

Other witnesses were more optimistic about the pace of training, and the potential of Iraqis to assume more of the security burden.

Mary Habeck is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

"A year ago, none of these [Iraqi] units even existed. Over the past year we have seen the creation of these units and their training, successfully bringing one of these units up to American readiness standards," she says.

However, many lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to take a tougher approach on accountability for the billions being spent in Iraq - and on results.

Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch says, "There are a lot of us here, [from] both parties, who want to get our sons and daughters home as quickly as possible and to be there not a day longer than they have to be. And that date is determined by those metrics [figures and benchmarks] you supply us with. So it is critically important, not just with the construction effort, not just with the security effort, but our whole involvement here in this country [Iraq]."

Through this past August, only about $13 billion of the $30 billion designated for Iraqi reconstruction had actually been spent.

Congress has approved more than 300-billion dollars for military needs and reconstruction in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.