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.
"I didn't learn a whole lot, actually," Barnes said. "It would have been nice if they had taught us the paperwork portion of it. Instead they focused on stuff we're not even doing here."
Another former infantry soldier, Staff Sgt. Benjamin Johnson, 27, of Saginaw, Mich., described the civil affairs training course as "vague."
"We didn't go over any CERP projects, which is what we're dealing with here," said Johnson, referring to the Commander's Emergency Response Program, the main reconstruction fund used by U.S. generals in their areas of operations.
"I felt a little cheated," Barnes said.Files in Disarray
By April, both Barnes and Johnson were attached to Forward Operating Base Iskan, run by the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. It's a few miles south of Iskandariyah, an industrial town nestled at the southern tip of an area known as the Triangle of Death. In this area, where Sunni and Shiite groups compete for influence, the military had embarked on dozens of projects, including cleaning streets and canals, building soccer fields and blood banks, and renovating telephone lines.
Four-person civil affairs teams, whose varied duties include handling economic issues and training Iraqi soldiers, are attached to each battalion on one-year rotations, sometimes less. Incomplete projects are handed off to the next team.
When Barnes and Johnson arrived, they found disorganized files. They had no copies of payment receipts, which totaled $7 million under the previous team. To learn the status of many ongoing projects, they had to speak with contractors and locals. "It wasn't done the way it should have been done," Barnes said. "We had to learn as we went how to do a project."
Some completed projects, they found, were not operational -- such as the medical clinic in a nearby village that the Iraqi government has not yet staffed. Some have to be fixed. "I know there have been other projects from past teams that are not working now, and we have to go and fix them and assess them and redo them," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, their three-man team -- they've been short-staffed since they arrived -- has 25 to 30 projects of its own to complete. The soldiers' duties also include attending meetings of the city council, agricultural union and other local groups.
"We kind of have to make do with what we have," said Sgt. Walter Jackson, 31, of Houston. "It's on-the-job training."
They try their best to go out and visit projects, said Johnson, but sometimes they are forced to ask other soldiers out on patrol, with no civil affairs training, to stop by projects "to take a few pictures and let us know what they think of it."
On a recent day, Johnson was scrutinizing a $250,000 contract to renovate a secondary school in Musayyib, a Shiite city south of Iskandariyah.
The Iraqi contractor was charging $50 per basketball and $30 per soccer ball. In Baghdad, top-of-the-line basketballs and soccer balls cost no more than $15.
Johnson's eyes went down the contract. Was hooking up a power cable to the city's power supply really going to cost $10,000? "I'm an ex-infantry guy. I don't know what this runs," Johnson said. "Maybe a cable like that costs a lot, but I really doubt it."
"If they are doing this to little stuff like basketballs, then how do I know they aren't cheating us on the big stuff, like the stuff I'm not qualified to assess?" he said.Work Unfinished
The contract to refurbish several buildings of the vocational school was signed in September. It called for renovations to be completed in 60 days. In February, shortly after Whiteside's battalion took over responsibility for projects in the Iskandariyah area, he visited the complex. The project was supposed to be 40 percent complete, and the contractor had been paid for that portion. But it was not done.
The contractor assured them he would finish, Whiteside said.
On Feb. 25, the contractor and the school's director came to the base. They wanted an additional $400,000 to upgrade the project. The civil affairs team leader, Maj. James Ortoli, refused. In his report, he warned of the contractor and director: "I think they are both trying to scam money from Coalition Forces and should not be used in future projects. I told them that the work I saw when I visited the school was not to standard and I wouldn't entertain the thought of spending more money for their mistakes."
He recommended canceling the project if there was no improvement. Several weeks later, Whiteside revisited the site and said he felt progress was being made.
In April, Jackson visited the site. The project was supposed to be halfway done, but the site was still chaotic.
"I don't know what constituted them as halfway through," Jackson said. "It was also our first project we really dealt with. We didn't have a whole lot to go off of, especially as far as experience goes. This kind of stuff, it was all new to all of us."
By then, Sgt. Michael Cawley, a New England police officer, had taken over as team leader on the project. He was responsible for paying the remaining 50 percent. Satisfied with the work, on June 17 he made the final payment to the contractor.
On July 27, in the auditorium, Whiteside was angrily demanding an explanation from the school's director, Naseer al-Abbas. He wanted to know why the contractor had failed. "What was this guy doing? Why didn't he take the initiative?"
Abbas said, through an interpreter, that they had confronted the contractor numerous times but that he ignored them. He said Whiteside's soldiers should have done a better job in monitoring the school's progress, adding that the constant changeover of soldiers he dealt with didn't help matters.
Whiteside told him that civil affairs teams had been to the complex 10 times and demanded to know why Abbas hadn't complained to them.
Whiteside, speaking to a delegation of U.S. aid officials and a reporter, blamed the school director. "When there are no students and nothing going on, what was he doing? What are the 149 employees doing? What are they doing when the floor is falling apart? The answer to all of these questions is nothing."
"It's everybody's problem. It's the only way things are going to work here."
As the convoy left the school, Whiteside declared: "Like everything state-owned, it's fully manned, and not operational. If they are spending their own money, they would care."'He Was in a Hurry'
The following day, Whiteside said that Cawley's final inspection of the school wasn't done properly. "He just screwed up. He was in a hurry," Whiteside said, adding that Cawley was facing pressure from his superiors to finish projects.
But Whiteside added that Cawley, who was on his second Iraq tour, was experienced. So much that he was promoted last month and now oversees a company of civil affairs soldiers. Whiteside said that he and his commander, Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage, also bore responsibility for what happened because they assigned Cawley to the school project and had to sign off on the final payment.
In a telephone interview, Cawley said he could not remember the last time he had visited the school, but said he felt he had done a good job. "I was able to get him to complete more than the scope of the work," Cawley said of the contractor. He declined to comment further.
Barnes's team has created a "continuity book" that lists all its projects with all the receipts -- to help the next team. But it still has to deal with past mistakes. On Aug. 10, Barnes met the contractor at the school and informed him that he needed to fix his shoddy work. Initially reluctant, the contractor agreed. As the convoy left the school, an explosively formed penetrator -- a sophisticated roadside bomb -- struck Barnes's Humvee, ripping it apart and wounding another soldier. Barnes survived.