After $38 billion, Iraq still not rebuilt: Inside

WASHINGTON -- For a little more than $38 billion, the United States and its contractors in Iraq have provided4.6 million people with access to water. They have distributed seeds to Iraqi farmers, improving wheat harvests. With electricity-generat...

WASHINGTON -- For a little more than $38 billion, the United States and its contractors in Iraq have provided4.6 million people with access to water. They have distributed seeds to Iraqi farmers, improving wheat harvests. With electricity-generating capacity now above prewar levels, they have given many Iraqis more daily hours of power. They have repaired more than 5,000 schools and vaccinated 4.6 million children against polio.

The list goes on. But as the U.S.-led, U.S.-funded portion of Iraq's reconstruction nears its end, American officials and contractors are grappling with a cold reality: Thousands of successes in Iraq may add up to a single failure.

"We accomplished a significant amount of work. But it was just overwhelmed by the overlay of violence," said Clifford Mumm, who has spent much of the past three years in Iraq managing projects for Bechtel Corp. "It's hard to be very optimistic."

U.S.-funded projects have long been a target for sabotage. Many of those that were spared remain unused by a population paralyzed by violence.

Yet those inside the reconstruction effort say security concerns were hardly the only problem. Poor planning and coordination by U.S. officials meant that even successful individual projects failed to do the job. For example, health-care centers were built at great cost but had no water and sewer service. Poor work-site management by contractors meant that some projects went awry. And now that the United States is handing over reconstruction efforts to Iraq, many involved with the process worry that the Iraqis don't have the training or the money to keep U.S.-built facilities running.


This was not how the rebuilding of Iraq was supposed to go. In the fall of 2003, six months after the U.S. invasion, President Bush promised Iraq "the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan." Top administration aides said they considered that plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II, to be a model for Iraq. Congress soon passed a spending bill that, while offering less money than the Marshall Plan, was expected to be enough to get Iraq back on its feet.

Riding through the streets of the northern city of Mosul three years later, taxi driver Sattar Khalid Othman has barely noticed.

"What reconstruction?" Othman said in an interview last week. "Today we are drinking untreated water from a plant built decades ago that was never maintained. The electricity only visits us two hours a day. And now we are going backwards. We cook on the firewood we gather from the forests because of the gas shortage."

Othman's view is shared by many across the country. In interviews last week, Iraqis expressed frustration not just with the United States but with Iraqi leaders, too, for pocketing aid money that was supposed to be for everyone.

"When the occupation came and we heard the promises, we said, 'Now the conditions in the city will improve.' But things got worse," said Ahmed Mohammed, 45, a teacher in the central province of Salah al-Din. "We know that large amounts of money have been dedicated to the city, but they were all stolen."

The United States has committed more than $38 billion to reconstructing Iraq, far more than any other nation, according to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. Most of that money is gone. Three-quarters of the primary fund for rebuilding has been spent and the rest has been set aside for finishing key projects.

Overall, 88 percent of planned projects -- about 12,000 -- have been completed, with just 4 percent yet to begin.

Yet tallying finished projects can be a misleading way of measuring success.


"We knew it wasn't a matter of how many projects were completed. It was a matter of: Is the electricity flowing to Baghdad? Is there security on the streets? Is the oil flowing? Those were the things that mattered," said Jon Bowersox, who until this summer was the health attache at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "Too often, though, from what I could see, it was all about the process -- how many hundreds of millions of dollars you had put under contract -- and not the product."

In the transportation sector, for example, the numbers look good. The United States has finished repairs on 86 of 98 railway stations. But few trains run because of security concerns. In the oil sector, despite the fact that production capacity has nearly returned to prewar levels, the country had a severe fuel shortage this summer because of high demand and sabotage.

Millions of children have received vaccinations and thousands of health-care workers have been trained. But more than 100 health-care facilities that were scheduled to be finished by now instead are empty because the contractors assigned to build them did not get their jobs done.

Not every U.S.-backed effort came under assault. CHF International, a Silver Spring, Md., nonprofit, has operated in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, completing hundreds of projects on slim budgets.

The organization's Middle East director, Bruce Parmelee, said CHF has avoided violence because local communities always were involved in the work. "Before we could do anything, the community would have to agree. I would tell them, 'It's for your community. You're the Iraqis. You can pave the way for this to happen.' And they did that," said Parmelee, who spent months at a time living among Iraqis in the areas where CHF worked. "It was never a case of some American saying, 'This is what you need in your country.' People won't attack projects that they feel ownership of."

Many Iraqis say they're looking forward to playing a bigger part in their country's rebuilding. But given the security situation, they don't know that they'll have any more success than the Americans did.

"The insurgents targeted the contractors by killing, kidnapping, slaughtering them and forcing them to pay enormous ransoms, 'til all the work stopped," said Fawzi al-Nieami, who works in construction in Mosul. "Now there are lots of profitable contracts, but no one dares to take them."

What To Read Next
Get Local