Troops Confront Waste In Iraq Reconstruction

Maj. Craig Whiteside
Maj. Craig Whiteside (Sudarsan Raghavan - The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 25, 2007

ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq -- Maj. Craig Whiteside's anger grew as he walked through the sprawling school where U.S. military commanders had invested money and hope. Portions of the workshop's ceiling were cracked or curved. The cafeteria floor had a gaping hole and concrete chunks. The auditorium was unfinished, with cracked floors and poorly painted walls peppered with holes.

Whiteside blamed the school director for not monitoring the renovation. The director retorted that the military should have had better oversight. The contract shows the Iraqi contractor was paid $679,000.

The story of the Vo-Tech Iskandariyah Industrial School illustrates the challenges of rebuilding Iraq. It also raises questions about how the military is managing hundreds of millions of dollars to fund such reconstruction, part of the effort to stabilize the country.

Senior officers and commanders insist cases like the Vo-Tech are isolated and are quickly addressed. But in this turbulent patch of Iraq south of Baghdad, ground commanders and civil affairs officers say the system is marked by inefficiency and waste and is vulnerable to corruption. Many Iraqi contractors are slow and unreliable. Some are dishonest. Meanwhile, inexperienced soldiers do their best to scrutinize millions of dollars in contracts and monitor projects they don't fully comprehend.

"I wish they had taught me how to spend money," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Barnes, of Charlie Company, 412th Civil Affairs Battalion.

U.S. generals say reconstruction projects can lure insurgents away from violence. They hope the Vo-Tech, this area's biggest project, will one day offer hundreds of Iraqis courses in computers, auto shop, welding and other trades. But nearly a year into the project, which will cost several million dollars to complete, there are only 32 students -- all enrolled in computer courses.

"We're trying to build as we go. We have to get people off the streets and not planting IEDs," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, referring to roadside bombs. Lynch, the top U.S. commander for Task Force Marne, which operates south of Baghdad, said the school could enroll thousands of students in the not-too-distant future.

After he left the complex, Whiteside, 38, who graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md., stepped into his Humvee, still incensed.

"It's what happens when you're throwing money at the problems," he said.

Three Weeks' Training

A former infantry soldier, Barnes, 27, was studying at Fresno City College for a history degree when he decided to return to Iraq as a reservist. He joined a civil affairs unit. He said he received three weeks' training at Fort Dix, N.J., where he learned to deal with displaced civilians and administer humanitarian aid.

Navy Capt. Donald McMahon, the top civil affairs officer for Task Force Marne, said the training provided adequate preparation.

But Barnes and other soldiers here disagreed. For example, there was no training in drawing up contracts, handling bids or using worksheets, they said.

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