Red flags in Iraq

September 12, 2004

THE RECONSTRUCTION of Iraq has fallen far short of where it should have been. With violence intensifying, the private contractors hired by the Pentagon to carry out large-scale projects have been unable or unwilling to get the job done. Mismanagement and a crazy obsession with privatization have further impeded the work.

Now comes a proposal by the new man in charge, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, that recognizes the need to provide for security, first and foremost, and that also questions whether big public works projects that employ foreign workers actually make much sense.

The overall thinking behind the proposal is right on target. But Mr. Negroponte's ideas on how to redirect the reconstruction effort are worrisome, to say the least.

He wants to divert $3.3 billion from the $18.4 billion approved for reconstruction and use it principally to train new Iraqi security forces and to stimulate job creation. So far, so good, but here's the rub:

The record of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security organizations up to this point has been less than stellar. Polls suggest that Iraqis themselves take considerable pride in their newly fielded forces - and that, to be sure, is something to build on - but they haven't been effective. In some cases, units have actually been infiltrated by insurgents. More of the same is unlikely to help.

In fact, Mr. Negroponte - who is in some ways reprising a role he first played as American proconsul in Honduras in the 1980s - does have a few refinements in mind. He reportedly wants to create two new agencies: a paramilitary force to maintain public order and an elite unit to provide what might be called palace security. Accounting rules would be loosened as well, even though corruption is already rampant in Iraq.

This setup, bluntly stated, practically invites abuse.

On the economic front, an emphasis on small projects that would hire local people makes a lot of sense. Mr. Negroponte also wants to put more money into capital repairs in the oil industry. Again, though, a lack of proper financial oversight would be asking for trouble. And it's worth pointing out that most Iraqis, according to polls, would prefer to see clean water and sewage flowing properly before they worry about more oil.

Congress should give Mr. Negroponte's proposal a careful hearing, because the system in place now - exemplified by Halliburton and Bechtel, and their thousands of foreign workers - is certainly broken. But if the reforms he wants lead to an unaccountable police force and a multibillion-dollar slush fund, it's hard to see how that's going to stave off even more trouble down the road.

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