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DIWANIYAH, Iraq — Provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq are scrambling to submit a large number of multimillion-dollar aid project proposals by July 15, something critics suggest will result in a rash of big construction projects they were never intended to run.

Further, they say, big-budget projects are being put forward too quickly, are too ambitious given the scheduled 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and are crowding out simpler schemes.

“Our goal is not necessarily to help [Iraqis] with building projects,” said Rick Gohde, an engineer with the Diwaniyah provincial reconstruction team, known as PRT. “We are supposed to be beyond that. We are supposed to be training them to sustain themselves as we are getting ready to leave.”

Capt. Doug Weaver, 28, a civil affairs soldier who acts as a liaison between the military and the Diwaniyah PRT, said Monday that close to $600 million of military aid funding was made available to the PRTs last month countrywide through the Commanders Emergency Relief Program, or CERP. The funds, made available by Congress, are only available through September 30 and the deadline for project proposals exceeding $1 million is next Wednesday, officials said.

Weaver, who studied industrial engineering before he deployed, identified numerous big projects in Diwaniyah vying for CERP funds, including new electrical substations ($1 million to $1.5 million), city sewers ($750,000 to $1.25 million), an agricultural school dormitory ($1.2 million), women’s centers to provide job training for divorcees and widows ($2 million), vocational schools ($500,000 each) and upgrades to Iraqi government communications networks.

Iraqi contractors will bid for the construction work, which is expected to employ more than 1,000 local laborers in Diwaniyah alone.

But Gohde said the PRTs are not supposed to be involved in the sort of “bricks and mortar” construction that most of the big budget projects involve.

In southern Afghanistan, construction projects supported by foreign aid, such as schools and medical clinics, stand as empty shells because Taliban militants have frightened students and patients away.

“There’s been some of that in this country,” Gohde said. “I’ve heard of schools being built with no furniture or teachers. There are projects that are constructed with the best of intentions that are not utilized in the original intent or utilized at all,” he said.

Bill Baker, a former University of Arkansas soil scientist who now works for the Office of Global Analysis in Washington, D.C., and the Diwaniyah PRT, said the new big-budget CERP projects are being put forward too quickly.

PRT members without experience running aid projects in less developed nations are gravitating to construction projects because they burn up CERP money quickly, but they are not necessarily what the Iraqis need right now, Baker said.

“I have projects that I know will work and we can get done with the skill set we have and the time we have here,” he said. “They will be sustainable and they will be here when we leave. [Construction projects are] going to be great, but it’s crowding out what I want to do with water, which is 1,000 times more important.”

Baker has proposed a $75,000 to $250,000 project that would train Iraqis to dig irrigation wells. But because the project will burn up only a small amount of the CERP money, it is on the back burner, he said.

“[PRTs] should be coming up with ideas of this magnitude that are feasible in the small amount of time we have,” Baker said. “There are not the people here to support all these big dollar projects.”

Task Force 1-2 Commander Lt. Col. Steve Miska referred questions about CERP funding in his area of operations to the PRT. Michael Klecheski, team leader of the PRT in Qasadiyah province, said he would not speak on the record to the issues raised by members of his team.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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