The United States risks squandering billions of dollars if it does not adequately train Iraqis to run power plants, water-treatment facilities and other projects built during the country's reconstruction, according to a report released yesterday by government auditors.
The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction also renewed a caution issued three months ago that the United States could run out of money before finishing its work because the government does not have a handle on how much it is spending.
U.S. agencies "must determine whether sufficient funds exist to complete the projects begun in Iraq and whether these projects include a sustainability plan that will provide the Iraqis with the tools and knowledge necessary to operate and maintain their new infrastructure," the report concluded. "A failure on either of these points risks leaving little to show for billions in U.S. infrastructure investment."
Congress authorized $18.4 billion for Iraq reconstruction in November 2003. Of that total, about 35 percent has been spent, with 1,000 projects completed and about 1,000 more underway.
Investigators are concerned, however, that there may not be enough trained Iraqis to keep facilities running once the Americans complete the initial work. For example, the Government Accountability Office reported last week that a power failure resulted after the United States overhauled a power plant and failed to teach Iraqis how to operate it. State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said the United States is focused on the problem and is to devote more funds to training Iraqis in maintenance and operation. The inspector general's office, which is monitoring the reconstruction process, plans to conduct audits to determine how well that training is working.
Another area auditors plan to look at is the government's system for monitoring how much money it is spending in Iraq. The Project and Contracting Office, which oversees reconstruction, has been unable to produce comprehensive data on that, in part because of a lack of coordination. There are a dozen or more offices from six U.S. agencies involved in the reconstruction process, and "there is minimal, if any, integration among the various systems that these offices use to manage information on contracting, finance and projects," the audit report said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch said in a statement that U.S. officials are already making "significant strides" in saving money and projecting future costs, but that the dangerous security environment in Iraq means officials have to be flexible.
The Pentagon controls about 70 percent of U.S. reconstruction funding, with the State Department and the Agency for International Development managing the rest. The Defense Department had initially estimated that security would eat up $1.2 billion of its share of reconstruction funds, but recently pegged the number at $2 billion. The inspector general's report said the costs are probably "much higher" than that.
With security costs eating away at budgets, some programs have been scrapped altogether and others have received less funding than they need. Auditors reviewing a water treatment facility that had its funding cut found that it would not increase the amount of available water, and would not improve water quality enough to make it potable.
The report did note progress in some areas. For example, it said that the number of trained Iraqi security personnel is at an all-time high of 169,812, a 48 percent jump from last December.