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

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:59 AM

BAGHDAD - In the spring of 2008, Gen. David H. Petraeus decided he had spent enough time gazing from his helicopter at an empty and desolate lake on the banks of the Tigris River. He ordered the lake refilled and turned into a water park for all of Baghdad to enjoy.

The military doctrine behind the project holds that cash can be as effective as bullets. Under Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, that principle gained unprecedented emphasis, and it has become a cornerstone of the war effort in Afghanistan, now under Petraeus's command.

But today the Baghdad park is nearly waterless, more than two years after a U.S. military inauguration ceremony that included a marching band and water-scooter rides. Much of the compound is in ruins, swing sets have become piles of twisted steel, and the personal watercraft's engines have been gutted for spare parts.

The troubled history of the venture speaks to the limitations and mishandling of a program that has provided U.S. military commanders with $5 billion for projects in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years. The program has given officers enormous flexibility to address urgent needs with few bureaucratic hassles.

But in many cases, such as that of the Jadriyah Lake park, the investments under the plan, known as the Commander's Emergency Response Program, have created no more than a temporary illusion of progress. They have also shown a lack of U.S. foresight and highlighted the shortcomings of an Iraqi government the Americans were trying to boost.

U.S. military officials say the program has been an invaluable tool to turn enemies into friends and to marginalize extremist groups and counter the root causes of instability. But U.S. lawmakers and government auditors have criticized the way the program has been run. They say commanders have used it to build large and often-unsuitable projects of dubious value. Critics say smaller initiatives funded by the program have received little oversight, making it difficult to gauge their effectiveness. Often, Iraqi officials provided little, if any, input in the ventures, damaging their long-term viability.

Recently, even some U.S. commanders have begun voicing reservations about the fund, saying there is little evidence that the millions pumped into the Iraqi economy during and after the U.S. troop surge in 2007 achieved the intended results.

In a few cases, some commanders say, the money did more harm than good.

A park's rebirth, decline

Lt. Col. Dennis Yates, a lanky, 6-foot-2-inch commander with a New Jersey accent, was responsible for the area that included the lake. He was uneasy about the prospect of spending $1 million and his men's time on the project, given that much of Baghdad remained a battlefield.

"It was a run-down, dilapidated mess," said Yates, who was tasked with renovating the park in spring 2008. "The lakes were drained, and the restaurants and stands were all abandoned and looted. There were craters in the asphalt from mortar and rocket shells."

Shiite militias were then battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad daily, and scores of rockets were being lobbed at the Green Zone, which is across the river from the park.

"We did run a danger of looking like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned," Yates said in a recent interview.

But there was little room for debate.

"The mantra at the time was 'return to normalcy,' " Yates said. "This would have represented a big step in that direction."

The Iraqi Board of Tourism built the park, whose main attraction is the lake, shortly before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. It closed soon after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government.

In the years after the invasion, the religious Shiite political party that ran the board became hostile toward the riverfront site because it had evolved into a popular romantic getaway in a city where public displays of affection are frowned upon.

Some, including the park's director, dreamed of turning the park into an oasis in a city being hammered with daily bombings. But Yates said it soon became clear that most Iraqi officials had no interest in filling the lake and opening restaurants along the water.

"I figured: These chickens are going to come home to roost," he said, referring to the investment the United States was about to make. "This is not going to survive."

His concerns notwithstanding, Yates hired a contractor who had overseen complex reconstruction projects commissioned by other U.S. military units. The contractor oversaw repair of the water pumps and hired landscapers.

Military officials held an opening ceremony in August 2008. It included a mini-marathon around Baghdad, wheelchair races, helium balloons and a parade of Iraqi police vehicles.

"This is a very significant opening for them," Col. Mark Dewhurst, then the brigade commander in the area, said in an interview during the groundbreaking that was later posted on YouTube. "It shows that the security has gotten so much better that they are now coming out with their children."

The park drew large crowds for the rest of the year. By spring 2009, however, the power supply in the district where the park is located was cut sharply, the water pumps stopped working, and the 12,140-square-foot lake dried up.

"We're not proud of this situation," deputy park manager Mahmoud al-Ani said in an interview, sitting in one of two restaurants along the barren lake. "The soul of this park is the water-pump station. Without the water-pump station, there is no park."

He said U.S. officials tried to get him to sign a document in fall 2008 assuming responsibility for keeping the park operational. He refused, he said, because the Iraqi government played no role in efforts to rebuild the park.

Gen. Ray Odierno, who from 2007 to 2010 held each of the top two military jobs in Iraq, declined to be interviewed for this article. He has called the Commander's Emergency Response Program one of the key factors that allowed U.S. commanders to improve security in Baghdad.

A spokesman for Petraeus, who is credited with helping to turn around the war in Iraq and is now the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, referred questions about the water park and the administration of CERP to the Pentagon.

A Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement that the reopening of the Jadriyah water park "was seen as and celebrated as a symbol of improving normalcy." The statement called CERP a "critical" tool for counterinsurgency operations.

"The management of CERP has also evolved significantly over time as lessons learned have been incorporated into guidance and procedures," the Pentagon statement said.

Military officials have said that large neighborhood generators and solar-powered streetlights funded by the program have generated goodwill by improving Iraqis' quality of life.

Inadequate oversight

Since 2004, Congress has given the Pentagon $5 billion in CERP funding, $3.8 billion of which was earmarked for Iraq. Congress is now considering an Obama administration request for $1.3 billion in CERP funding for fiscal 2011. All but $200 million would go to Afghanistan.

But government auditors and some military commanders say the Pentagon has failed to comprehensively study which CERP initiatives worked and which did not.

"There was no effort I saw to review any of these projects," said Col. Craig Collier, who led a battalion in Baghdad in 2008. "We've allowed a theory to become dogma without introspection."

Around Iraq, other CERP-funded projects have either fallen into disrepair or never begun. Several playgrounds built around Baghdad with CERP money have been looted.

An outdoor concert hall in Sadr City that cost U.S. taxpayers about $250,000 never broke ground because local officials and residents deemed the area too religiously conservative for outdoor performances.

"We don't allow dancing and singing outside," said Hassan Alizerjawee, a Sadr City elder who lives across the street from the proposed site.

Questionable CERP projects were not limited to Baghdad.

When Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling took command of the division responsible for volatile provinces in northern Iraq in late 2007, he was startled by the way the program was being run.

"What I saw were projects that weren't connected, which had very little oversight," he said. "Most lacked a tracking mechanism to show how they were progressing. While I'm not an engineer or a businessman, I know those things all are recipes for disaster."

Hertling said he believes in the principle that money can be used as a weapon. But he said that the way it was being spent by the U.S. military and other government entities at the time amounted to "carpet bombing" and that it needed to be more strategic.

Among senior Iraqi officials and elders, known as sheiks, CERP became something of a bonanza, Hertling said.

"It was obvious that we were being taken advantage of by some," he said. "It was almost a joke for several of the sheiks, who kept getting richer by promising things that they knew they couldn't deliver."

Hertling said he issued guidance to subordinates restricting the use of CERP funds and sought to ensure that every project complemented combat operations.

Collier said many of his peers felt pressure to spend as much money as they could.

"It was all about spending money," he said. "If you weren't spending enough relative to your peers, you were considered a guy who didn't get it."

Spend they did - on swimming pools, trash-collection contracts, micro-grants to small businesses and condolence payments to relatives of Iraqis killed in crossfire.

In some cases, Collier said, the money appeared to make things worse because it raised the stakes in already volatile situations.

That is what happened during his first deployment, in the northern city of Samarra, where an attack on a revered Shiite mosque in February 2006 helped spark a sectarian war that raged for two years.

Leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who were in control of large portions of Samarra at the time, shook down and intimidated CERP contract recipients, the commander said.

"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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company