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Problems plague contracts to rebuild Iraq

As the one-year anniversary of the war in Iraq approaches, critics claims that persistent delays, cronyism and even corruption are plaguing U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq.  NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

Wednesday in Baghdad, a senior military official complained that Iraqi security forces are still without body armor, radios and SUVs that were supposed to arrive in November.

Why?  Delays in contracts to buy the equipment.

Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad said, “They want to defeat these enemies of a new and free Iraq. If we had the equipment for these brave young men we would be much farther along.”

There have been some successes in the rebuilding process:

  • Many schools rebuilt
  • Key bridges and roads repaired
  • Electricity and phone service improved
  • Oil production almost back to prewar levels

But experts say there have been more than the usual problems, even given the hostile environment. 

“The contracting process itself has been chaotic, at best, uh, often disorganized and there’s been a real push to get the money out faster, perhaps, than the capacity to spend it,” said Paul Light, New York University professor and contracting expert.

American companies that once viewed reconstruction as a potential gold rush now complain of confusion and, in some cases, corruption.

“It’s a mess. One of the biggest obstacles confronting business right now is this corruption question. In other words, how do you know that you have to make a payoff? Unfortunately they’re being rather blatant about that.… Corruption in Iraq is considered a common practice. It’s not considered necessarily bad,” said Washington lawyer Rick Johnston, who has been to Baghdad many times for clients.

Charges of improper influence and overcharging have triggered investigations:

  • A huge contract to equip the Iraqi army was awarded to a tiny company, Nour USA, set up only in May.
  • Halliburton, which holds the biggest contracts so far, now faces multiple government investigations — accused of overcharging for fuel in Iraq and for feeding the troops.

In fact, Halliburton now warns that it could face cash flow problems if the government demands a significant refund or delays payments — another potential problem in a contracting process that one consultant calls a train wreck.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.