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Despite Billions Spent, Rebuilding Incomplete

Workers restore a power plant in southern Iraq. Nationwide, power generation is above prewar levels but service remains spotty, especially in Baghdad. Sabotage is blamed for the failure of many reconstruction projects.
Workers restore a power plant in southern Iraq. Nationwide, power generation is above prewar levels but service remains spotty, especially in Baghdad. Sabotage is blamed for the failure of many reconstruction projects. (U.s. Army Corps Of Engineers)

Yet tallying finished projects can be a misleading way of measuring success.

"We knew it wasn't a matter of how many projects were completed. It was a matter of: Is the electricity flowing to Baghdad? Is there security on the streets? Is the oil flowing? Those were the things that mattered," said Jon C. Bowersox, who until this summer was the health attache at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "Too often, though, from what I could see, it was all about the process -- how many hundreds of millions of dollars you had put under contract -- and not the product."

In the transportation sector, for example, the numbers look good. The United States has finished repairs on 86 of 98 railway stations. But few trains run because of security concerns. In the oil sector, despite the fact that production capacity has nearly returned to prewar levels, the country had a severe fuel shortage this summer because of high demand and sabotage.

Millions of children have received vaccinations and thousands of health-care workers have been trained. But more than 100 health-care facilities that were scheduled to be finished by now instead are empty because the contractors assigned to build them did not get their jobs done.

The problem, Bowersox said, was that the plan to build new facilities across the country was too ambitious. "We could have gone in and done low-cost rehabs, and not tried to transform their health-care system in two years," he said.

Bechtel was responsible for one of the facilities that was not finished: a children's hospital in the southern city of Basra that was supposed to provide world-class care and had been championed by first lady Laura Bush.

Mumm, the Bechtel manager, said the project, which is just an empty shell today, could not continue because of security threats. "It was impossible to get people to come to work. They were threatened every which way," Mumm said. Fifty-two people associated with company projects died, most of them Iraqi. Overall, 650 civilian contractors have died working on U.S.-funded reconstruction.

Not every U.S.-backed effort came under assault. CHF International, a Silver Spring nonprofit organization, has operated in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, completing hundreds of projects on slim budgets.

The organization's Middle East director, Bruce Parmelee, said CHF has avoided violence because local communities were always involved in the work. "Before we could do anything, the community would have to agree. I would tell them, 'It's for your community. You're the Iraqis. You can pave the way for this to happen.' And they did that," said Parmelee, who spent months at a time living among Iraqis in the areas where CHF worked. "It was never a case of some American saying, 'This is what you need in your country.' People won't attack projects that they feel ownership of."

That community-based approach, he said, wasn't broadly shared by others involved in the reconstruction. "Large contractors didn't necessarily have that mandate," he said. "Security was challenged right from the beginning, so a majority of decisions were made behind a bulletproof shield."

Bringing Iraqis into the process early also made it easier to transfer projects to Iraqi control, Parmelee said. Auditors surveying U.S. efforts have been warning for more than a year that all will be for naught unless Iraqis are trained in how to operate, maintain and pay for their new facilities. Last month, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., wrote that the process for transferring U.S. assets to the Iraqis "appears to have broken down."

"Many successful projects have been completed," Bowen said. "Whether they are operating within a sustainable Iraqi infrastructure is yet to be answered."

Many Iraqis say they're looking forward to playing a bigger part in their country's rebuilding. But given the security situation, they don't know that they'll have any more success than the Americans did.

"The insurgents targeted the contractors by killing, kidnapping, slaughtering them and forcing them to pay enormous ransoms, till all the work stopped," said Fawzi al-Nieami, who works in construction in Mosul. "Now there are lots of profitable contracts, but no one dares to take them."

The following people contributed to this report: Staff writers Sudarsan Raghavan and Khalid Alsaffar in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Salahuddin province, Washington Post staff in Kirkuk, Fallujah, Mosul and Duhak province, and researcher Karl Evanzz in Washington.

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