U.S. officials: Iraq school renovations going well with fewer subcontractors
BAGHDAD — American officials say the U.S. Project and Contracting Office is completing renovations on about 200 schools, and it soon plans to begin work on 1,000 more.
They also say the work is being done without swarms of subcontractors — who the Iraqi government claims have contributed to shoddy work in the past.
And it’s all working with a minimum investment in security, thanks to low-profile operations.
So far, work has focused on the southern part of the country, but will soon move north. The entire project will cost $79 million, or about $35,000 to $65,000 per school.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Iraq’s Ministry of Education and local headmasters decide what the schools need, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signs off on the quality of the completed work before contractors are paid. Iraqis are doing the on-site work so as not to attract attention, saving money on security costs.
Still, these Iraqis won’t be hiring other Iraqi companies, who in turn hire yet others.
“The one thing we focused on is making sure there were not a lot of layers of subcontractors,” the U.S. official said during a background briefing Sunday.
Large companies and organizations remain involved at the top level. Work is being managed by groups including KBR, an affiliate of Halliburton, the corporation formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney; Washington Group International; U.S. Agency for International Development; and Save the Children.
The oversight and subsequent desire to minimize subcontracting follows complaints by Iraq’s Ministry of Education over previous renovations by both nongovernmental organizations and large firms, in particular the Bechtel Corp.
A second official, a U.S. consultant involved in the renovations, said some charities abandoned work once Iraq become more dangerous in March. Iraq’s criticism of Bechtel has been more generally aimed at the quality of work done.
Bechtel has released a statement defending its work in Iraq.
“A number of inaccurate and misleading statements have been made recently regarding Bechtel’s work under the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Iraq, suggesting that Bechtel has won sweetheart deals, overcharged the federal government, and failed to employ Iraqis,” its release read. “These charges simply are not true. … Bechtel stands proud of the contribution the men and women on the project are making to this critical postwar effort.”
U.S. officials said Sunday that Bechtel did “a lot” of good work, but acknowledged that the Iraqi government had complained.
In addition to the U.S. Project and Contracting Office efforts, charities continue to help build the schools — so much so, in fact, that the office has found 600 of the 1,200 schools it originally planned to renovate had already been improved. The Americans are then using their resources to find finding additional schools to work on.
U.S. officials said they are happy for the help, but would like to see a central database so that they know who is doing what work.
“It’s a tough one,” the consultant said, “because there’s no central point of control … some NGOs just don’t want to deal with the U.S. government.”