By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007
Provincial reconstruction teams, the civilian centerpiece of the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, are making "incremental" progress in some areas and very little in others, a government auditor told Congress yesterday.
"Improvement . . . is likely to be slow and will require years of steady engagement," Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction , told a House panel.
The teams are designed to help Iraqis build and maintain democratic institutions, provide basic services and create jobs at a local level. There are about two dozen teams spread across Iraq, each staffed with a handful to several dozen U.S. civilian and military subject experts.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described the teams as the front line in the administration's "bottom up" strategy of developing local governance even as sectarian divides have stymied political reconciliation on the national level. As the number of U.S. military forces in Iraq increased earlier this year, Rice doubled the number of reconstruction teams, boosting their overall cost through this fiscal year to $2 billion.
The need to work on the local level -- as opposed to the massive and largely unsuccessful infrastructure projects that characterized initial U.S. reconstruction efforts -- has been described by Rice as an important "lesson learned" during four years in Iraq.
Bowen agreed, telling the oversight subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that "if the story of Iraq reconstruction tells anything, teaches any lesson, it is that the U.S. government was not well structured . . . in 2003 to engage in the kind of post-conflict relief and reconstruction operations we have faced."
But a review by the inspector general's office, published yesterday, concluded that the success of the strategy varies widely in different parts of Iraq and in different task areas, including governance, security and rule of law, economic development, administration, and political reconciliation. Overall, it criticized the program for lacking uniform guidelines and measurable objectives.
Bowen also cited the failure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to pass a law delineating provincial and local government powers -- one of the "benchmarks" for progress set by Congress -- as a "key obstacle" for the program.
Among the relative successes, the report cited the three reconstruction teams in Anbar province in western Iraq. The changing allegiance of Sunni tribesmen there, from supporting insurgent groups to backing U.S. and Iraqi forces, has sharply lowered the level of violence and allowed team members to travel and work more closely with local officials, the report said.
The opposite is true in other parts of the country, it said. U.S. teams officially assigned to the provinces of Karbala, Najaf and Qadisiyah have been based in another province and unable to travel because of security concerns.
In Baghdad, where most of the new teams are located, some "districts and neighborhoods remain too 'hot' " for political reconciliation or meaningful outreach, the report said. "In areas that included mixed Sunni-Shia populations, we were told [by team members], the departure of U.S. forces would produce open battlegrounds of ethnic cleansing."