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US Inspector General Urges Congress to Reform Reconstruction Management in Iraq

In testimony to members of Congress on Wednesday, the U.S. Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction urged lawmakers to support a recommendation for major reforms to avoid a repetition of fraud and abuse in U.S. overseas reconstruction and stabilization operations. Stewart Bowen told a House of Representatives subcommittee that serious deficiencies in coordination across U.S. departments and agencies make changes absolutely necessary.

Since he was appointed to his position in 2004 during the administration of former President George W. Bush, Stuart Bowen has made numerous trips to Capitol Hill, where he has detailed a pattern of waste and mismanagement in Iraq reconstruction efforts.

Now about to make his 26th visit to Iraq, Bowen and his staff recently issued a report that makes several recommendations for ensuring that billions of dollars are not wasted in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan.

Bowen says U.S. government departments and agencies need to bring together the disparate elements involved in stabilization and reconstruction into a new, single office that would be called the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations.

He cited for lawmakers the example of the multi-year effort to train police in Iraq and Afghanistan - totaling some $3.5 billion - as a prime example of the lack of coordination.

"Lack of capacity to oversee and properly protect taxpayer interests with regard to the training of police in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Stewart Bowen. "How important is that issue? [U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Army General Stanley] McChrystal says [it is] number one."

Bowen's report and congressional testimony come as the Obama administration sends more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and steps up civilian efforts there.

Bowen delivered the same message recently to another panel, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, where the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

That office is headed by retired Marine Corps Major General Arnold Fields, who also told House lawmakers of the need for major reforms.

"SIGAR seeks to improve the effectiveness of U.S. programs and deter fraud, waste and abuse by fostering a culture of accountability that permeates every aspect of the reconstruction effort," said Arnold Fields.

Major General Fields noted that the amount of funds dedicated to reconstruction in Afghanistan may well surpass money that flowed to Iraq.

The Defense Department says the report correctly identifies problems in U.S. reconstruction efforts, including capacity and authority issues at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But the Pentagon does not favor establishing a new agency, preferring to fix existing institutions involved in reconstruction. The State Department has expressed similar concerns.

None of this has shaken Bowen's belief that the many examples of abuse, fraud and mismanagement in Iraq make a new agency necessary.

"Some have criticized it as perhaps a layering of bureaucracy or unnecessary," he said. "To the contrary, it is reorganization. The government, when it is confronted with systemic problems, has responded in recent years."

Bowen told Congress that despite the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq, there is still a need to exert effective oversight on an estimated $9 billion in U.S. funds for Iraq into 2011 - including $3 billion in new money for the Iraq Security Forces Fund.

Bowen said it is possible that some of the $4 billion in U.S. funds estimated to have been lost in Iraq might have fallen into the hands of insurgents or al-Qaida.

In 2006, an audit by Bowen's office found questionable accounting for weapons maintained by the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq.