Successful Iraq Rebuilding Effort Could End in 18 Months
By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 1, 2007 Barring additional requests and funding from the government of Iraq, U.S. reconstruction work in Iraq could draw to a close within 18 months, the top U.S. military official for reconstruction said yesterday.
Army Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division, told bloggers in a conference call from Iraq that, with roughly $3.5 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds remaining, he foresees enough work to extend the U.S. effort about one and a half more years.
“To date, the United States has contributed $22 billion towards Iraq’s rebuilding efforts,” Walsh said.
That contribution from U.S. taxpayers “was really just to jumpstart the rebuilding efforts here” and pave the way for a continuation of efforts by the Iraqis.
Walsh explained the initial U.S. commitment was to “wholesale work” to build capacity in power generation, the water and sewer systems and the oil industry. These projects were “supposed to be followed by donor nations’ and the government of (Iraq’s) funds,” he said.
Still, he added, U.S. engineers and reconstruction officials also have made it a priority to provide Iraqis access to basic services such as medical facilities, fire stations, schools, paved roads and clean water.
With reconstruction assets spread “throughout the country,” Walsh said, progress has been steady. “We’ve set goals, and we’re tracking to meet those goals.”
The general described the relationships and strategy behind the reconstruction program, including his close work with U.S. State Department officials in Baghdad and the provinces to put together provincial reconstruction teams, prioritize projects and channel funding.
“We’re kind of blended altogether,” Walsh said of his cooperation with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the State Department’s Iraq Reconstruction Management Office.
“As I finish up the reconstruction piece, USAID will be working alongside me, giving out micro-loans and working to get the economy jumpstarted, while the PRTs are working with the provincial governments, trying to see what new projects they would like constructed,” he said.
Of major infrastructure projects, Walsh pointed to significant progress in the oil, water and electric sectors, despite a constantly shifting security situation.
With $3 billion to $4 billion committed to the water sector, Walsh said, 500 of a planned 800 water and sewer projects have been completed to date, with additional work ongoing. He noted that even in restive Anbar province, Army engineers have installed water treatment plants and sewer systems.
Reconstruction benefits extend beyond the immediate physical plant and into the local economy, he noted. “In the water sector, we employ about 2,000 Iraqi citizens every day” in construction work and operational maintenance. A January 2007 Gulf Region Division report on Iraq reconstruction noted that more than 22,000 Iraqis are employed by the U.S. across all sectors.
“It’s not only the construction projects in and of (themselves),” Walsh said of the Iraqi participation, “it’s giving men and women a good paying job where they can use those funds to take care of their (families).”
Iraqis also are expected to see a boost from improved oil production and distribution systems. Walsh said, “We’re working to help the Iraqis get to 3 million barrels a day in their oil industry,” up from 500,000 barrels per day in the immediate post-war period. Production currently hovers around 2.5 million barrels per day.
Even greater progress has been made in expanding and redistributing electrical power, despite frequent criticism that Iraqi needs are unmet. “Seventy-five percent of the country here in Iraq has twice as much electrical power as it did before the war,” Walsh said. “The national average is 12 hours of power.”
Under Saddam Hussein, the bulk of Iraq’s electricity was funneled into Baghdad, leaving most parts of the country with two to four hours of power per day, while residents of the capital enjoyed 18 to 22 hours. Walsh described U.S. efforts in the electrical sector as successful in boosting overall production of electricity, while allowing for more widespread distribution.
He noted, “A lot of people back in the United States think, ‘They have eight hours of power, you know, that’s terrible.’ But if you go out to al Anbar, that’s double and (in) some cases triple the amount of power that they had pre-war.”
Responding to allegations of widespread fraud and mismanagement in the reconstruction effort, Walsh noted projects are overseen by a combination of internal reviews and oversight by the Army Audit Agency, the General Accounting Office and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. He said the last quarterly report by SIGIR noted 90 percent of the projects they inspected met standards.
Therefore, Walsh explained, “When I hear accusations like that, I just go to all of those inspector general reports and talk with them and they give me a different flavor that’s out there.”
Discussing Gulf Region Division’s next 18 months and beyond, Walsh said remaining reconstruction funds would be steered more toward local projects than to large infrastructure construction. “A lot of them have to do with essential services, working with the State Department on how to put some infrastructure-protection systems together and also funds that are going out to the provinces.
“We’re looking to finishing up the work in another 18 months, unless we get additional work from the Iraqi government,” he said.
Any such projects, he explained, would be funded through Iraqi government funds allocated through their appropriations process.
Summarizing the reconstruction effort, Walsh described a learning curve among the Iraqis that has at times slowed progress, but will ultimately leave them stronger. “This is an ancient land,” he said, “But it’s a new country. They’re still trying to figure out what it’s like to be a new Iraqi.”
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to American Forces Information Service.)