Report says buildup in Iraq gained little

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Despite hopes that the U.S. military "surge" in Iraq would encourage economic and political headway and sap the strength of the insurgency, very little lasting progress has been achieved, according to a new U.S. report.

The study, based on the assessments of dozens of U.S. military and civilian officials working at local levels across Iraq, runs counter to the optimistic forecasts by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. It said that with the exception of Anbar province, there has been "little progress" toward political reconciliation, a key U.S. goal in Iraq.

Withdrawal of U.S. troops would produce "open battlegrounds of ethnic cleansing" in some Baghdad neighborhoods and elsewhere in Iraq, the report said.

In high-profile congressional hearings last month, Petraeus and Crocker testified that the addition of 28,000 American troops in Iraq, ordered last winter by President Bush, was reducing violence and providing opportunity for economic projects, government reform and political reconciliation.

The troop "surge" is temporary, with the first of the reinforcement units scheduled to leave Iraq before Christmas.

But instead of charting progress, the new report, by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, warns that Iraq "will require years of steady engagement" before there is significant progress in providing Iraqis with power and clean water, jobs, health resources and government that works.

"Iraq's complex and overlapping sectarian, political, and ethnic conflicts, as well as the difficult security situation, continue to hinder progress in promoting economic development, rule of law, and political reconciliation," the report cautioned.

With a $44 billion investment by American taxpayers in rebuilding Iraq, there are some visible improvements, the report said. But it warned that local and provincial governments "have little ability to manage and maintain" new health clinics, water treatment plants, power-generating facilities and other projects.

One U.S. official in Iraq, quoted anonymously in the report, said he foresaw a "train wreck" ahead as costly U.S. projects in Iraq grind to a halt for lack of manpower or maintenance.

The report's grim conclusions parallel previous U.S. assessments, including a major national intelligence estimate in August that said there had been little economic improvement. That report forecast that sectarian violence would continue displacing Iraqis from their own neighborhoods and that Iraq's government would "become more precarious" over the next six to 12 months.

Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates dismissed the report's conclusion, which he said "doesn't square" with what he is hearing from senior U.S. military officers in Iraq.

The office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, created by Congress three years ago to probe U.S. spending in Iraq, is headed by Stuart W. Bowen, a lawyer who previously worked for then-Gov. Bush in Texas and served on Bush's White House staff in Washington.

His report, released yesterday, is based on assessments from 32 provincial reconstruction teams made up of U.S. military and civilian experts in local government.

Despite the arduous and often dangerous conditions these teams work under, they have achieved some "incremental" success, the report said. But it went on to document continuing problems that run deep and wide through Iraq.

The judicial system is not functioning because of police corruption and judges who are subject to intimidation by sectarian violence. To boost employment, U.S. military commanders are spending millions of dollars on short-term reconstruction projects that employ Iraqis, but these projects often are not coordinated with local governments and rarely provide long-term job opportunities, the report said.

The report documented "a growing public frustration" of Iraqis with their government. As a result, there has been "little progress" toward political reconciliation, which it said was being undermined by jockeying for power among rival Shiite groups and a "sense of alienation" on the part of the minority Sunnis.

Asked yesterday about the report, Gates said he had not read it and does not believe its assessment.

"The information that we're getting from the commanders and from the ambassador doesn't square with that," Gates said at a Pentagon news briefing. "Our sense is that, in fact, there is progress in these areas - more than we would have expected."

Adm. Mike Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said the report's assessments differ from what he saw on a recent trip to Iraq.

As evidence of a growing economy, Mullen cited a butcher at a local market just outside Baghdad who until recently was selling a sheep every week. Now, the butcher is selling a sheep every day, Mullen said.

"I don't want to overly state it ... but it's starting to happen," he said.

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