James Glanz / The New York Times – 2007-05-01 00:57:16
(April 29, 2007) — In a troubling sign for the American-financed rebuilding program in Iraq, inspectors for a federal oversight agency have found that in a sampling of eight projects that the United States had declared successes, seven were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting and expensive equipment that lay idle.
The United States has previously admitted, sometimes under pressure from federal inspectors, that some of its reconstruction projects have been abandoned, delayed or poorly constructed. But this is the first time inspectors have found that projects officially declared a success — in some cases, as little as six months before the latest inspections — were no longer working properly.
The inspections ranged geographically from northern to southern Iraq and covered projects as varied as a maternity hospital, barracks for an Iraqi special forces unit and a power station for Baghdad International Airport.
At the airport, crucially important for the functioning of the country, inspectors found that while $11.8 million had been spent on new electrical generators, $8.6 million worth were no longer functioning.
At the maternity hospital, a rehabilitation project in the northern city of Erbil, an expensive incinerator for medical waste was padlocked — Iraqis at the hospital could not find the key when inspectors asked to see the equipment — and partly as a result, medical waste including syringes, used bandages and empty drug vials were clogging the sewage system and probably contaminating the water system.
The newly built water purification system was not functioning either.
Officials at the oversight agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said they had made an effort to sample different regions and various types of projects, but that they were constrained from taking a true random sample in part because many projects were in areas too unsafe to visit. So, they said, the initial set of eight projects — which cost a total of about $150 million — cannot be seen as a true statistical measure of the thousands of projects in the roughly $30 billion American rebuilding program.
But the officials said the initial findings raised serious new concerns about the effort.
The reconstruction effort was originally designed as nearly equal to the military push to stabilize Iraq, allow the government to function and business to flourish, and promote good will toward the United States.
“These first inspections indicate that the concerns that we and others have had about the Iraqis sustaining our investments in these projects are valid,” Stuart W. Bowen Jr., who leads the office of the special inspector general, said in an interview on Friday.
The conclusions will be summarized in the latest quarterly report by Mr. Bowen’s office on Monday. Individual reports on each of the projects were released on Thursday and Friday.
Mr. Bowen said that because he suspected that completed projects were not being maintained, he had ordered his inspectors to undertake a wider program of returning to examine projects that had been completed for at least six months, a phase known as sustainment.
Exactly who is to blame for the poor record on sustainment for the first sample of eight projects was not laid out in the report, but the American reconstruction program has been repeatedly criticized for not including in its rebuilding budget enough of the costs for spare parts, training, stronger construction and other elements that would enable projects continue to function once they have been built.
The new reports provide some support for that position: a sophisticated system for distributing oxygen throughout the Erbil hospital had been ignored by medical staff members, who told inspectors that they distrusted the new equipment and had gone back to using tried-and-true oxygen tanks — which were stored unsafely throughout the building.
The Iraqis themselves appear to share responsibility for the latest problems, which cropped up after the United States turned the projects over to the Iraqi government. Still, the new findings show that the enormous American investment in the reconstruction program is at risk, Mr. Bowen said.
Besides the airport, hospital and special forces barracks, places where inspectors found serious problems included two projects at a military base near Nasiriya and one at a military recruiting center in Hilla — both cities in the south — and a police station in Mosul, a northern city. A second police station in Mosul was found to be in good condition.
The dates when the projects were completed and deemed successful ranged from six months to almost a year and a half before the latest inspections. But those inspections found numerous instances of power generators that no longer operated; sewage systems that had clogged and overflowed, damaging sections of buildings; electrical systems that had been jury-rigged or stripped of components; floors that had buckled; concrete that had crumbled; and expensive equipment that was simply not in use.
Curiously, most of the problems seemed unrelated to sabotage stemming from Iraq’s parlous security situation, but instead were the product of poor initial construction, petty looting, a lack of any maintenance and simple neglect.
A case in point was the $5.2 million project undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to build the special forces barracks in Baghdad. The project was completed in September 2005, but by the time inspectors visited last month, there were numerous problems caused by faulty plumbing throughout the buildings, and four large electrical generators, each costing $50,000, were no longer operating.
The problems with the generators were seemingly minor: missing batteries, a failure to maintain adequate oil levels in the engines, fuel lines that had been pilfered or broken. That kind of neglect is typical of rebuilding programs in developing countries when local nationals are not closely involved in planning efforts, said Rick Barton, co-director of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington.
“What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities,” Mr. Barton said. “If you don’t have those elements it’s an extension of colonialism and generally it’s resented.”
Mr. Barton, who has closely monitored reconstruction efforts in Iraq and other countries, said the American rebuilding program had too often created that resentment by imposing projects on Iraqis or relying solely on the advice of a local tribal chief or some “self-appointed representative” of local Iraqis.
The new findings come after years of insistence by American officials in Baghdad that too much attention has been paid to the failures in Iraq and not enough to the successes.
Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Gulf Region Division of the Army Corps, told a news conference in Baghdad late last month that with so much coverage of violence in Iraq “what you don’t see are the successes in the reconstruction program, how reconstruction is making a difference in the lives of everyday Iraqi people.”
And those declared successes are heavily promoted by the United States government. A 2006 news release by the Army Corps, titled “Erbil Maternity and Pediatric Hospital — not just bricks and mortar!” praises both the new water purification system and the incinerator. The incinerator, the release said, would “keep medical waste from entering into the solid waste and water systems.”
But when Mr. Bowen’s office presented the Army Corps with the finding that neither system was working at the struggling hospital and recommended a training program so that Iraqis could properly operate the equipment, General Walsh tersely disagreed with the recommendation in a letter appended to the report, which also noted that the building had suffered damage because workers used excess amounts of water to clean the floors.
The bureau within the United States Embassy in Baghdad that oversees reconstruction in Iraq was even more dismissive, disagreeing with all four of the inspector general’s recommendations, including those suggesting that the United States should lend advice on disposing of the waste and maintaining the floors.
“Recommendations such as how much water to use in cleaning floors or disposal of medical waste could be deemed as an intrusion on, or attempt to micromanage operations of an Iraqi entity that we have no controlling interest over,” wrote William Lynch, acting director of the embassy bureau, called the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office.