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U.S. rushes to complete only some Iraq projects

NYT: A push to complete reconstruction work has been met with scorn by Iraqi officials, who say some projects are finished with such haste that engineering standards have deteriorated.
Image: Workers at a water purification plant outside Falluja
Workers at a water purification plant outside Falluja, Iraq, part of a $104 million sewage treatment system that so far has not connected a single home. Joe Silva for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

After two devastating battles between American forces and Sunni insurgents in 2004, this city needed almost everything — new roads, clean water, electricity and health care included.

The American reconstruction authorities decided, however, that the first big rebuilding project to win hearts and minds would be a citywide sewage treatment system.

Now, after more than six years of work, $104 million spent, and without having connected a single house, American reconstruction officials have decided to leave the system unfinished, though they portray it as a success. It is just one element in a strategy to complete or abandon rebuilding projects before American troops leave in large numbers over the next year.

The push to complete reconstruction work as quickly as possible has been met with scorn by Iraqi officials, who say some of the projects are being finished with such haste that engineering standards have deteriorated to the point where workers are in danger and some of the work is at risk of collapse.

The Falluja sewage system, in particular, mirrors the extensive problems that have marked much of the American rebuilding effort: a grand plan to provide a modern facility that diverged from Iraq’s most pressing needs, and was further troubled by millions of wasted dollars, poor planning, construction flaws, ongoing violence and little attention to sustainability.

In Dhi Qar and Babil Provinces, there are complaints that roads and buildings recently completed by the Americans do not meet basic construction standards. In Hilla, the capital of Babil Province, extensive cracking has been cited in a $7.4 million road built less than a year ago. Reconstruction officials, however, say the cracking is not out of the ordinary and presents no safety hazard.

“Since its opening, it has reduced congestion in the capital, made the roads safer by providing an alternative for large trucks to transit and spurred economic development along the new route,” Robert Wong, an American rebuilding official in the province, wrote in an e-mail message.

The work in Iraq has been of a consistently high quality, American officials say, adding that they have made worker safety a priority.

Additionally, the United States Embassy in Baghdad and American rebuilding officials say they are aware of only isolated concerns about the quality of reconstruction work now under way in the country or about projects’ being left undone.

Americans here also point out that thousands of projects, from bridges to honeybee farms, have been completed since the 2003 United States-led invasion without complaint about their quality, and that any recent complaints represent only a small percentage of the $53 billion American undertaking.

“I am not aware of the Iraqis having any sort of hard feelings that we will not finish current projects and award projects we said we would,” Col. Dionysios Anninos, head of the Army Corps of Engineers office in Iraq, wrote in an e-mail message. “We will finish strong!”

But some Iraqis have compared the current hurried reconstruction effort to the haphazard American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. United States officials acknowledge that the current effort to accelerate rebuilding projects in Iraq is based on plans to reduce the American military forces in the country to 50,000 by September from about 85,000 now, and to withdraw entirely by the end of 2011. Many reconstruction projects continue to require security provided by the American military.

In Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, after American officials told local leaders that they intended to speed up projects because a nearby United States Army base was scheduled to close this summer, Iraqi officials said they found that construction standards had slipped so drastically that they ordered an immediate halt to all American-financed projects, even though American inspectors had deemed the work to be adequate.

Shaymaa Mohammad Ameen, who works with American reconstruction officials as a liaison for the Diyala Provincial Council, said American officials frequently threatened to leave when engineering standards and other safety issues were questioned by Iraqis.

“They constantly tell us that if we do not approve, they can always move the allocated funds to projects in other provinces,” she said.

In Baghdad and Salahuddin Provinces, local officials say Americans have simply walked away from partly completed police stations, schools, government buildings and water projects during the past several months without explanation.

Here in Falluja, in Anbar Province, the sewage treatment system has left some of the city’s busiest streets lined with open trenches for more than three years and engendered widespread resentment. The news that it will be left unfinished has provoked anger.

“I told the Americans if they want to leave a good impression on Falluja and to erase the bad feelings about the United States from the war that they should finish this project completely and properly,” said Hamed Hashim, president of the Falluja city council. “It was supposed to be finished in two years, then five years, and it still isn’t complete. There’s been no benefit to us.”

Reconstruction officials acknowledge that the project has been hindered by myriad problems including the area’s ongoing violence, which has interrupted work for periods of time.

The project was conceived to treat waste for all of Falluja’s 200,000 residents and to build in additional capacity for the city to grow by 50 percent.

But the new, diminished system will serve only 4,300 homes, or about one-sixth of Falluja’s population, according to American and Iraqi officials.

The cost will come to about $23,000 per house, although there are doubts whether any homes will be connected because of the expense for families.

Further, because both the project’s scope and efficiency have been reduced so dramatically, American officials acknowledge that the system may emit a foul odor if it ever does become functional.

For now, the situation that prompted American officials to give the sewage system top construction priority in 2004 continues to exist: Falluja remains dependent upon septic tanks that leak raw waste into streets and down storm drains and eventually into the Euphrates River, a main source of drinking water in Falluja and cities downstream.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the project, said the scaled-down version of the system would include only pieces considered essential, including the treatment plant and three pump stations.

“I think the project was too ambitious — and then to transplant it to a war zone,” Colonel Anninos said. “It took awhile, but we are on the right track now, and we will leave behind a pretty good legacy once we get commitments from the government to provide fuel and chemicals.”

But after years of negotiations with the Americans, the Iraqi government has guaranteed neither. As an alternative, American planners said the system might need to rely heavily on backup generators for power, which creates its own set of problems — including that the treatment plant and pumps will require as much as 250 gallons of fuel each hour to operate in a country where fuel shortages remain commonplace.

The project is riddled with other unresolved questions as well, including whether the $3 million American officials had pledged for Iraq to link the system to houses was sufficient: American planners say it is; Iraqi engineers say it is not.

Both Iraqis and Americans acknowledge that the country has relatively few people with working sewage systems, and four Iraqis have died during construction, including at least one person overcome by toxic fumes, according to workers at the site. Iraqi engineers also say they have complained to Americans about the poor quality of some of the work, but have been ignored.

There are also concerns about the system’s sustainability once American engineers leave. American planners say training for Iraqi engineers to learn to operate and maintain the system would require at least several months, but a proposed yearlong training program has not been financed.

“This project was supposed to be a mercy,” said Ali Abed al-Karim, the owner of a store where an open trench out front prevents most customers from entering. “But it has been nothing but a curse.”

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Anbar, Diyala and Babil Provinces.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.