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Demise of Iraqi water park illustrates limitations, abuse of U.S. funding program

As official combat operations in Iraq draw to a close, here is a look at seven years of key players and critical moments in the war.

"If you throw money into places that have not been secured yet, it's like throwing meat between hyenas and lions," Collier said. "They're going to fight over it."

A 2007 U.S. military report included in the treasure trove of classified State Department documents released by the whistleblower organization WikiLeaks details one such case. During the detention of a suspected insurgent, U.S. troops found in his home money he had apparently been paid as a CERP contractor.

Insurgents weren't the only unintended recipients of CERP cash, according to federal court documents. Criminal investigations by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and other agencies have led to convictions in four cases in which U.S. service members and allies stole CERP cash.

In some cases, the service members came to the attention of law enforcement officials only after banks reported unusual transactions years after the money was stolen, court records show. Authorities expect to soon charge five more U.S. Army officials in similar embezzlement cases involving CERP funds, SIGIR officials said.

Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general, said the troops' embezzling of large sums reveals the weak oversight of the program at the time.

Authorities are pursuing dozens more investigations that fit the pattern.

"With that much cash flowing around in duffel bags, it became too much of a temptation," Bowen said.

'Room for improvement'

SIGIR, the Army's inspector general and the U.S. Government Accountability Office have conducted numerous audits and reports on CERP, many of them critical.

The early criticism focused on large projects that were commissioned with few guarantees that the Iraqi government had an interest in keeping them running. Those projects included power plants and a hotel complex near the Baghdad airport that was designed as a business hub. It was partially looted after the U.S. military turned it over to the Iraqi government.

Iraqis came to see CERP as an alternative to navigating their government's bureaucracy for help to fund projects, Blake Stone, who worked as a governance adviser for the State Department in Baghdad from 2008 to 2010, wrote in a recent piece for Prism, a magazine published by National Defense University Press. And Stone argued that commanders often felt pushed to spend money for the wrong reasons.

"Our efforts were often derailed by the military losing millions of dollars in CERP funding in the name of 'If we don't spend it, we will lose the money to the Afghanistan effort,' " wrote Blake, an adjunct professor at the United States Naval War College.

Under pressure from Congress and government auditors, the Pentagon has tightened guidelines for the authorization of CERP projects. Large projects now must be coordinated with local government officials and, in some cases, require approval of senior military leaders.

In July, the Pentagon issued a report to lawmakers outlining how CERP was managed in 2009 and 2010. The report concluded that the program's management "has been satisfactory." But the Pentagon said it also had "identified significant room for improvement."

One area showing signs of attempted improvement is the Jadriyah park, which remains open. In the summer, State Department officials in Baghdad decided to once again pour money into the park.

The United States spent $177,000 on a new water pump and equipment to filter water from the river. This time, a U.S. Embassy official said in response to written questions, the effort is being coordinated with the Iraqi government, which has earmarked $207,000 for other improvements.

"This park has the potential to provide a safe, green space for families to enjoy themselves as the security situation in Iraq continues to improve," the embassy official said.

But al-Ani, the deputy park manager, said he has little hope that the new U.S. money will revive the park again. The pumps require electricity, he said, and the park, like everything else in Baghdad, does not get enough of it.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan in Baghdad and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.

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