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US Congressional Investigator Details Problems with Iraq Reconstruction

U.S. lawmakers are looking into problems that have plagued U.S.-led reconstruction programs in Iraq and seeking ways to improve the effort.

An official with the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress charged with examining issues relating to the collection and use of public funds, says inadequate security in responding to the insurgency in Iraq is a key reason for the slow progress of reconstruction in the country.

But Joseph Christoff, the director of international affairs and trade at the GAO told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that that is not the only problem facing the reconstruction effort.

"Other problems include disagreements among U.S. agencies, contractors and Iraqi authorities on priorities, uncertain site ownership, high staff turnover, inflation and unanticipated site conditions," he said.

The United States shifted $5.8 billion of the $18.4 billion approved by Congress for reconstruction in Iraq to security projects. But that has forced Washington to limit or abandon some projects aimed at restoring the country's water and electricity infrastructure.

While the United States has been grappling with challenges to the reconstruction effort, so have the Iraqis, according to Christoff.

"The Iraqi government has not been able to sustain the rebuilt infrastructure due to shortages of power, trained staff and supplies. As of July 2005, $52 million in water and sanitation projects were not operating or were operating at low capacity due to these problems. In the electricity sector, some power plants are using low grade oil to fuel turbine engines designed to operate on natural gas. Iraqi power plant officials told us that they had not received the additional training needed to operate and maintain these new engines," he said.

Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, says corruption also remains a challenge.

"We are fighting two insurgencies in Iraq. We are fighting the one in the field, the one that is hitting the infrastructure. But we are also fighting a hidden insurgency, the corruption issue that confronts us," he said.

Bowen is heading to Iraq for meetings with Iraqi officials next week to underscore the importance of fighting corruption.

The World Bank estimates that Iraq will need $56 billion for reconstruction.

The GAO's Christoff says that figure may be too low, citing the increased costs of security and Iraq's crumbling infrastructure.

In any case, only $13 billion have been pledged by international donors. Of that, just $3.2 billion have been dispersed, a fact that does not please many U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. "The American taxpayer continues to carry the heavy burden here."

In light of the daunting challenges to reconstruction, the Bush administration has decided to shift the focus away from large reconstruction projects.

James Jeffrey, senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and coordinator for Iraq policy, says President Bush's budget request for next year includes $771 million to support Iraqi efforts to build and sustain a democratic society and a healthy economy.

"Some of the programs funded will include infrastructure sustainment, capacity building at the core of Iraqi ministries, and the rule of law programs," he said.

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, says there must be more vigorous oversight of U.S. aid to Iraq reconstruction projects.

"We must make certain that funds are being distributed according to a clear set of priorities. We must work with the new Iraqi government to help it stem corruption that results in funds being siphoned away from important goals. We must work to ensure that local and regional leaders are capable of protecting water, electrical and other infrastructure projects as we phase down our military involvement," he said.

The Foreign Relations Committee will have another opportunity to examine the issue next week, when Secretary of State Rice testifies before the committee.

Meanwhile, in a speech in Washington, Iraq's minister for municipalities and public works, Nesreen Barwari, praised the progress that is being made in reconstruction, although she also acknowledged the challenges, particularly with corruption.

"Seven in 10 Iraqis says that their lives are going well. And nearly two-thirds expect things to improve even more in the coming years," he said.

For example, she said more than seven million people have access to clean water now, a service they did not have before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.