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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers criticized a lack of oversight and responsibility in the electrical deaths of 15 servicemembers in Iraq, warning that unless changes are made more troops could lose their lives as well.

Defense officials confirmed earlier this week that at least 16 people — including one contractor — have died in electrical accidents on- and off-base in Iraq over the past four years. Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee called the accidents troubling, because most of them could have been prevented.

Keith Ernst, who retired as director of the Defense Contract Management Agency in May, acknowledged that while his agency oversaw that type of maintenance and construction work in Iraq, they had few employees qualified to inspect or even perform such work.

He said officials are working to correct that, but lawmakers said they need to work faster.

"It doesn’t take brain-surgery knowledge to contract former building inspectors and bring them out on short-term contracts to get the job done," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.

"There is not a city in this country that doesn’t have the ability to have a building inspector check out an electrical system before that switch is allowed to be thrown.

"Why can’t we have the same operation in Iraq, that has over 100,000 personnel we need to protect?"

Much of the hearing focused on the death of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted while taking a shower at a special forces compound in Baghdad in January.

Investigators from the Army Logistics Civil Augmentation Program and the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office noted military officials and contractors overlooked faulty water pump wiring in that case, despite four repair requests from another soldier stationed there.

"Our soldiers are trained and equipped to deal with the inevitability of dangerous environments of Iraq and other war zones," said committee ranking member Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

"But are they sufficiently prepared to understand the dangers of ungrounded, high-voltage electrical current?"

Several of the other deaths involved troops running electrical equipment into power lines, or suffering electrocution while dealing with Iraq’s old and poorly-maintained electrical systems.

Davis and other Republicans on the panel blasted defense officials for not shutting down facilities at the first report of electrical problems, and for their confusing system of repair assignments and post-work inspection.

Army officials could not say whether Maseth’s superior officers acted on the complaints, which drew more anger from the lawmakers.

"I need to know what soldier was responsible for that soldier," said Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif. "I don’t want to look and see whether an electrician got the right task order.

"I want to know if the chain of command did its job."

Democrats on the panel also charged that defense contractor KBR shared responsibility for Maseth’s death, noting that that company performed repair work at the station and performed other maintenance there.

However, military officials disputed that, and a preliminary report by the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office suggested that the contractor had little involvement in the case before Maseth’s death.

On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that U.S. facilities in Iraq are not "replete with electrical hazards."

He added that Multi-National Force — Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus has appointed a safety czar to deal with these kinds of issues.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.


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