Sunday, November 13, 2005

Reuters AlertNet - CORRECTED - U.S. reconstruction chief challenged by Iraqis

Source: Reuters

In BAGHDAD story headlined "U.S. reconstruction chief challenged by Iraqis" please read in paragraph eight ... when temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 49 Celsius) ... instead of ... when temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 40 Celsius) ... (correcting temperature conversion).

A corrected version follows.

By Claudia Parsons

BAGHDAD, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Iraqi perceptions that not enough is being done to rebuild the country after the U.S.-led invasion are simply a case of bad public relations, Washington's new reconstruction chief said on Sunday.

Challenged by Iraqi reporters at his first news conference since he arrived in Baghdad to head the U.S. embassy's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, Dan Speckhart listed a string of U.S.-funded projects covering health, education, transport, water and electricity generation.

"I recognise some people are frustrated perhaps that it's not moving as fast as they would like but the basis is there," Speckhart responded when asked why there was little evidence of progress in Baghdad, where electricity is erratic at best.

Speckhart said more than half of a $2.8 billion reconstruction programme in the capital had gone towards infrastructure projects, such as electricity, water and sewage.

"This is a big challenge. There's been more than 30 years of decay and neglect that has run down the infrastructure tremendously," Speckhart said, adding that demand for electricity was also rising as Iraqis buy more fridges, air conditioners and other appliances previously in short supply.

Speckhart said roughly half the electricity generation in Iraq now was the result of U.S.-funded projects; that 350 water and sewage treatment projects had been undertaken; and that 700 schools had been renovated.

In July a report by the U.S. Congress' investigative arm said that as of May 2005, power generation in Iraq was at a lower level than before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Many Iraqis spend whole evenings without power, and last summer, when temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 49 Celsius), families were making do with about eight hours of power a day, two hours on and then four off.

Iraq's oil output, which U.S. officials initially said would help pay for rebuilding projects, had also dropped in the past two years, the Government Accountability Office report said.

During the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, there was extensive damage to buildings, including the telecommunications system, bridges and other infrastructure, while electricity and oil installations suffered from a decade of international sanctions.


Speckhart described the $30 billion rebuilding programme funded by the U.S. and other international donors as "the largest reconstruction programme for a single country in the history of the world". But he said even that was only a start, and further international help would be needed.

Another Iraqi reporter asked him about a recommendation by a U.N. watchdog agency that Washington should repay $208 million in apparent overcharges paid to a Halliburton Co. subsidiary.

Speckhart said the problem was much of the U.S.-funded work done was not visible enough. "I wish I had time to take you all on field trips," he told the reporters.

"I understand it's a big country and it's not happening as fast as Iraqis would like, but it is happening," he said.

Pressed by a third reporter about an unfinished hospital project in a Shi'ite district in Baghdad, Speckhart said penalties for companies would depend on their contract.

"Sometimes in Iraq there can be delays that are not the fault of the companies," he said.

A report by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction at the end of October said more than a quarter of all reconstruction funds had been spent on security costs to protect contractors, hundreds of whom have died in Iraq. That eats away at what ends up being spent on Iraq and Iraqis.

"We're trying to build and the terrorists are trying to destroy," Speckhart said, adding that U.S. authorities often did not publicise successes to avoid attracting attacks.

"Part of the challenge we have faced is we haven't advertised what we're doing in all these places," he said.

Speckhart said reporters who questioned why so many contracts had gone to U.S. firms, such as Halliburton, a company once led by Vice President Dick Cheney, were misinformed.

"It's not the case any more that there are just large international firms doing this," Speckhart said. "Iraqi firms are making the money."