Amalgam of American agencies working to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on reconstruction in Iraq.
BAGHDAD — Amid the uncertainty and bloodshed of post-invasion Iraq, an amalgam of U.S. agencies ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers to the State Department is quietly working to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
Officials from the Iraq Reconstruction Program, with its $18 billion budget and 2,600 projects ranging from schoolhouses and police stations to electrical power substations, say their work is being overshadowed by news on the fragile security situation and continuing U.S. military deaths.
Progress, they say, is tangible and widespread.
Are they right? As is so often the case in Iraq, yes and no.
In areas where the security situation allows them to build, huge numbers of construction projects have helped return a sense of normalcy. Water and power service have been restored. Schoolkids who sat in ankle-deep mud in classrooms now have new buildings and books. Oil production is approaching pre-war levels.
A total of $7 billion of the $18 billion budget is devoted to security of project sites and workers. Insurgents threaten or kill workers who take jobs paid by American money. And projects in the places where they could do the most good are sometimes dropped because of security concerns.
But the numbers are encouraging. One year ago, 200 projects were in the works. Now, there are over 2,600, with more than 1,400 completed. More than 180,000 Iraqis have been given jobs.
“We want people on the fence to pick up a shovel or a hammer instead of an AK-47 or a grenade,” said Col. Frank Kosich, deputy commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Gulf Region District. The district is divided into smaller commands which focus on the north, south and central regions of Iraq.
Reconstruction efforts are divided into six categories: security and justice, focusing on border forts, police stations and military facilities; public works and water; oil; buildings, health and education; transportation and communication; and electricity.
It is the last category that gets the most focus.
“We are executing the program with a mind toward the needs of the Iraqi people. With regard to that, electricity is the most important. Clean water is important,” Kosich said.
Every week, the reconstruction teams issue an update on how much electricity is generated, how much demand there is on the system, and where the shortfalls lie. Power is still intermittent even in Baghdad, as residents swelter through a third summer with limited power.
Officials attribute that to a run-down infrastructure, insurgent attacks on electrical facilities and a lack of qualified engineers to run the sprawling system. But they also say the shortfall in power supplied belies a sign of progress: So many more people are buying air conditioners and other electrical appliances, officials say, that the demand on the system is greater than before. So, as generating capacity is improved, demand continues to grow too fast.
The Iraqi planning minister, Barham Salih, has applauded reconstruction efforts but recently told a donors conference that Iraqis could lose hope unless they see progress soon.
“I want to hold judgment and claim success once we see these pledges turned into realities on the ground,” Salih said. “This is the time to make the difference. It is now or it will be too late. Iraq’s people have grown numb to many statements of support.”
Iraqis seem divided on the issue, and that difference of opinion is evident even within the reconstruction project offices, which try to employ as many Iraqis as possible.
Jabbar Najar was a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, then later essentially exiled to Libya. He returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam and now works for the reconstruction program.
“We Iraqis must be patient. This is reality, that this could take 20 years,” the 44-year-old said. “Since the Iran war, and through [Iraq’s 1990 invasion of] Kuwait and the sanctions, things have been neglected.”
Sitting right across from Jabbar, 29-year-old Mohammed Al Aubaedy disagrees. He lived in the Bronx through his school years, and says certain U.S. policies have slowed reconstruction. One policy he fervently opposed was removing qualified technicians with ties to the Baath party. He doesn’t see why he and others should have to wait for power or water.
“I don’t care if they are Baathists, Nazis or whatever,” he says with a flourish, “as long as they make my life better.”
Al Aubaedy is fond of telling a joke he says illustrates both the patience and odd hopefulness of Iraqis.
A man goes to a construction site seeking work, the joke goes. The foreman tells him there are no jobs. The man takes this in, then asks when jobs might be available.
“Come back in 50 years,” the foreman replies dismissively.
The man takes this in, starts to walk away, then stops.
“What time?” he asks.
For the reconstruction teams, there is a constant balancing act between security and getting the job done. Some Iraqi contractors don’t want it known they are taking U.S. money for projects. At the same time, there is an effort to show that the United States is contributing more than soldiers to Iraq.
“We’re not too concerned with the Iraqi people recognizing it was done by us, just as long as it gets done,” Kosich said. “People here have a tendency to say, ‘Shucks, I’m just doing a job.’”
“But we’re executing this in the midst of a fight. Obviously, it costs a lot more money for security and moving equipment and materials. But we are meeting our customers’ expectations.”
Iraq Reconstruction Program, by the numbers
¶ More than 2,600 projects valued at more than $6.2 billion
¶ More than 1,450 projects completed, valued at $1.4 billion
¶ More than 180,000 Iraqis employed
¶ 919 border forts, points of entry, military facilities, and prisons and courts
¶ 429 generation, transmission and distribution projects
¶ 2,250 megawatts of power added to grid (enough to power 5 million Iraqi homes)
¶ More than 1,400 electrical towers and 8,600 km (more than 5,330 miles) of power transmission lines installed
¶ $4.3 billion allocated for electrical power improvements
Public works and water
¶ 319 projects in water treatment, sewer systems and water resource projects
¶ 132 projects in restoration, water injection pump stations, plant repairs
Buildings, health and education
¶ 1,110 schools, primary health care centers, hospitals and public buildings
Transportation and communication
¶ 219 village roads, expressways, bridges, airports, ports, railroad stations, postal facilities
Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division