Iraq infrastructure falling


WASHINGTON --Virtually every measure of the performance of Iraq's oil, electricity, water and sewer sectors has fallen below pre-invasion values even though $16 billion of U.S. taxpayer money has been disbursed in the Iraq reconstruction program, government witnesses told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.

Of seven measures of infrastructure performance presented at the committee hearing by the inspector-general's office, only one was above pre-invasion values.

Those that had slumped below those values were electrical generation capacity, hours of power available in a day in Baghdad, oil and heating oil production, and numbers of Iraqis with sewage service and drinkable water.

Only hours of power available to Iraqis outside Baghdad had increased over prewar values.

Two of the witnesses said they believed that an estimate by the World Bank that $56 billion would be needed for rebuilding over the next several years was too low.

As Iraq's oil exports plummet and the country remains saddled with tens of billions of dollars of debt, it is unclear where that money will come from, said one of the witnesses, Joseph A. Christoff, director of international affairs and trade at the Government Accountability Office.

And those may not be the most serious problems facing the physical infrastructure, from pipelines and storage tanks to power lines and electrical switching stations, said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office.

In one sense, focusing on the plummeting performance numbers "misses the point," Bowen said. The real question, he said, is whether the Iraqi security forces will ever be able to protect the infrastructure from insurgent attack.

"What's happened is that an incessant, an insidious insurgency has repeatedly attacked the key infrastructure targets, reducing outputs," Bowen said. He added that some of the performance numbers had fluctuated above prewar values, only to fall again under the pressure of insurgent attacks and other factors.

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, began by billing the session as a way of deciphering how much of America's original ambitions in the rebuilding program are likely to be fulfilled with the amount of money that Iraq, Congress and international donors are prepared to spend on the task.

This downsizing of expectations was striking given that $30 billion in U.S. taxpayer money has already been dedicated to the task, according to a GAO analysis. Of that, $23 billion has already been obligated to specific rebuilding contracts and $16 billion has been disbursed, Christoff said.

Bowen's office has pointed out that another $40 billion in Iraqi oil money and seized assets of Saddam Hussein's regime had also been made available for reconstruction.

Last week, Robert J. Stein Jr., one of four former U.S. officials in Iraq who have been arrested in a bribery and kickback scheme involving that money, pleaded guilty to federal charges.

Bowen said in his testimony that the news on reconstruction in Iraq is not all bad. Despite the recent financing and performance shortfalls, the rebuilding program now seems to be much less ridden by fraud, corruption and chaos than in the early days.

James R. Kunder, assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in the State Department, emphasized things like what he called a 30 percent "potential increase" in electricity output because of new and reconditioned power generators in Iraq.

"We have done a lot of reconstruction work in Iraq over the last couple of years," Kunder said. "We did not meet all of the goals, the ambitious goals, we originally intended."

Christoff said the latest numbers may overstate how well Iraqis have been served by the reconstruction program.

Water numbers, for example, often focus on how much drinkable water is generated at central plants, he said. But he said 65 percent of that water is subject to leaking from porous distribution pipes, which often run right next to sewage facilities.

"So we really don't know how many households get potable, drinkable water," Christoff said.

Christoff said that on a recent trip to Baghdad, he had been told by U.S. forces there that they would need another $3.9 billion to continue training and equipping Iraqi forces, in part so that they can better protect the infrastructure.

The money would presumably be included in a 2006 supplemental funding request in which the Bush administration has said it would ask for more money to support the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said an official at the Office of Management and Budget.

The Bush administration "told us it would include this type of expenses," the official said, adding that no total for Iraqi security forces has yet come directly from the White House.

If the $3.9 billion that the U.S. forces believe they need is appropriated, it would bring the total spent simply on training and equipping the Iraqi army and police to about $15 billion.

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