The U.S. military's effort to rebuild major infrastructure in Iraq will be winding down during the coming year, leaving the Iraqi government to fund the effort and to find engineers capable of handling the projects. In a VOA interview, the American general who has been in charge of the effort for the past year said Iraq could turn to such countries as China, India and Iran to provide the expertise it needs. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the next 12 months will be a time of transition in Iraq's reconstruction effort. He says the $22 billion the U.S. government provided four years ago to help rebuild large-scale facilities will have been spent by this time next year on such services as electricity, power and oil, as well as health care and schools. By then, he says, the 650 Americans working on Army Corps projects, most of them civilians, will come home.
The general says the Corps also employs 500 Iraqi engineers, who will have to work under a new structure led and funded by the Iraqi government.
"The Iraqi government needs to pick up the difference between what the U.S. government put in and what the requirement is," he said. "The thoughts were in 2003 that that difference would be picked by donor nations from the U.N., or from the Iraqi government. And so the donor nations have been a little bit slow in getting their funds in place. But the Iraqi government put $10 billion of their oil revenues into reconstruction last year, and I suspect they'll put another $10 billion in for '08."
At $10 billion per year, the Iraqi funding is much higher than what the United States and other donors have been providing. But there is a long way to go. The United Nations estimated in 2003 that Iraq would need a total of $80 billion for reconstruction. And General Walsh says that estimate would likely be higher now. And the general notes that replacing the American effort will also require an infusion of expertise, which he says the Iraqi government is already seeking around the world.
"They'll be hiring people from outside the government of Iraq to assist them," he addedl "Certainly, they talked about Chinese engineers, Indian engineers, perhaps some Iranian engineers coming in and helping them do some of the construction, as well as American firms."
The Army Corps of Engineers has also been training Iraqi technical experts and government officials on how to continue the construction effort, and how to maintain new systems that have been built and installed in recent years.
Although the major U.S. effort on large-scale projects in Iraq is ending, smaller-scale efforts led by the State Department will continue. President Bush announced an expansion of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams when he unveiled his new Iraq strategy in January.
But on Thursday, the special U.S. government inspector general for Iraq reconstruction said the program is making only "incremental" progress, and predicted that the slow pace will continue. The official, Stuart Bowen, said the effort will require "years of steady engagement." The U.S. embassy in Baghdad agreed with that last comment, but questioned how Bowen measured the teams' work. A spokesman said the teams have achieved "measurable" progress in a short time.
The Provincial Reconstruction Teams may have faced one problem that affected the Army Corps of Engineers' larger projects in recent months - disruptions caused by the surge in security operations. But General Walsh says that period has passed.
"As the kinetic operations went up during the surge, as expected, it did have impacts on the reconstruction. As kinetic forces would be chasing al-Qaida into a particular area, we would have to slow down construction or stop construction in there until the kinetic operations were completed," he noted. "And now that the security environment is getting better, we're also able to get the construction with less impact from the security impacts."
General Walsh says up to 19 percent of his projects were disrupted on any given day during the height of the surge operations. But now, he says, the disruption is down to its normal level of around 12 percent.
And General Walsh agrees that the Iraq reconstruction efforts will have to be long-term.
"Thirty years of neglect is not going to be turned around in three or four years of work," he said. "So it's going to take a number of years to turn around that neglect. And what I see is everybody is expecting 24 hours of electricity tomorrow. They're not going to get 24 hours of electricity in Iraq until 2013."
The general says electricity supplies in some parts of Iraq are up to 15 hours a day now, from about eight hours when he arrived a year ago. But he acknowledges the progress is not keeping up with Iraqis' expectations.