Bricks and mortar rounds

November 28, 2005

One of the better arguments for sticking it out in Iraq is that the United States broke that country and has a moral obligation to put it back together before leaving. This means fostering the growth of democratic government, rebuilding such institutions as the army and the police - and restoring the water, sewage, electricity and oil-producing systems. In fact, this last list may be the most important; without fixing the tangible things that are actually, physically broken, there can't be much progress on the other efforts to put in place a functioning society.

On this score, the Bush administration had good intentions but has faltered, and in the end the United States is heading for a defeat in the war to reconstruct Iraq's infrastructure. Last month the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., found that of the $30 billion committed by the U.S. to physical rebuilding projects, 93 percent has been committed and it won't do the job originally envisioned. A significant number of projects, Mr. Bowen says, will remain on the drawing board. His office is working now to pinpoint how many.

Mr. Bowen calls this the "reconstruction gap." What happened is that the money ran out faster than expected. More than 25 percent of the funds went toward security, for sadly obvious reasons. The cost of materials needed to reconstruct the oil wells and pipelines was much more than budgeted. The work was slow. Plans kept changing. Systems that had been fixed didn't stay fixed. And apparently a lot of money was stolen: Earlier this month the former financial officer for the American occupation authority was charged in federal court with steering contracts to shady U.S. contractors in exchange for more than $200,000 a month. Prosecutors are looking at six more cases. In the project to build the Babylon Police Academy, $2 million just simply disappeared, Mr. Bowen says.

Iraqis today still have fewer hours of electricity than they did before the war. Oil exports are lower than they were under Saddam Hussein. Unemployment is staggering. And, of course, cities that have seen intense fighting, such as Fallujah, lie in semi-ruin.

What are the prospects that the Bush administration will ask Congress for more money to finish the reconstruction job? Given the budget deficit, next year's elections, and, especially, the fallout from Katrina, they are slim indeed.

The rebuilding of Iraq was to have been a cornerstone of American success there, and now it's going to fall short. There's no sense hoping that things will turn out OK, because they won't. This is one less reason for thinking that the continuing American occupation of Iraq could yet have a positive outcome.

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