Two damning reports in the last few days have thrown into sharp relief just how badly the task of rebuilding Iraq is going. The office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction noted that a mere fraction of the projects had either been completed or were working properly once handed over to Iraqis.
The charity Oxfam issued a report saying that among other shortcomings, 70 percent of Iraqis have no access to clean water.
To understand just how hard it is to meet the targets, and how hard some people are trying, it is useful to take a ride to a project that is working. A team led by Commander Steve Frost, an amiable and deeply dedicated reservist who serves as a U.S. Navy SeaBee (construction battalion), leads a team that spent 10 months refurbishing a small pumping station called Abu Nawwas in a lower-class Baghdad neighborhood and teaching Iraqi engineers how to run it.
Getting to the locked, 10-foot-high steel gates of the station required a convoy of four heavily armored and guarded vehicles about 20 minutes from the IZ or International Zone (aka the Green Zone), where the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government reside.
The trip isn't fun. No trip in Baghdad is. Every parked car is a potential bomb, every bit of trash can hide a bomb, every checkpoint — and there is one every few blocks — is a magnet for suicide bombers. And some of them are manned by death squads dressed as Iraqi security force members.
Commander Frost has been blown up twice and cheerfully told me he has just come back from the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he had 600 internal stitches to re-attach vital organs ripped loose by the shock wave from an IED.
This particular project, however, has proved "pretty safe," he said. Nonetheless, it took several minutes for the gates to be opened. Visits are not announced, and the military tries not to go too often in order not to attract attention. Anything built with American help and anyone who works there is a target for insurgents, whether the project serves the local people or not.
Water, along with electricity, garbage collection and other municipal services we take for granted are vital elements in the counter-insurgency plan. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently told CBS News that electricity was "more important to the average Iraqi than all 18 benchmarks rolled up into one."
The same can be said for water — because unless such services are available, there is little reason for people to back the government. The shortages leave a gap to be filled by militias with a civic wing, which is to their advantage and the detriment of the central government. Hezbollah in Lebanon is a classic example.
Iraq's own statistics show the government is falling well short of an acceptable mark. Iraqi health officials issued a warning on July 3 about an increase in water-borne diseases among children and the elderly. A report from Anbar province spoke of a 70 percent increase in cases of diarrhea among children since 2006 when the security situation spiraled downwards. Diarrhea is already the most prolific killer of children under 5, and cases continue to rise.
Commander Frost's project will help circumvent that happening in one neighborhood at least. "We have an interim goal of supplying right now, a short term goal, of approximately 1.1 million cubic feet of water being pumped out," he said as we stood next to an inlet pipe that brings water gushing in from the Tigris River that flows by, brown and polluted, about 100 yards away.
"Once we reach that goal," he added, "we will be able to supply water to approximately 20 percent of the local area full time."
The other 80 percent will just have to make do, and in some cases that can mean hiking a mile and more to get a bucket of water from a pipe illegally tapped into a main line, then carrying it home again. None of the water obtained that way can be considered safe.
The water from the Abu Nawwas plant, on the other hand, is clean enough to drink out of the tap. Iraqi technicians have proven both quick to learn and conscientious about keeping the plant in good working order, Frost said with a degree of pride. Just what these types of projects mean to local people was made graphically clear to Frost at another one he finished recently.
"We had one Iraqi lady who came up to us, gave us a hug, shook our hands and said 'thank you,'" he said, "because this is the first time they've ever had potable water running in their house."
The visit to Abu Nawwas was brief. Frost chatted with the technicians on duty, complimented them on the job they are doing, and promised to come again to see what they need and how things are going.
As we prepared to leave, a mortar round whistled overhead and hit the Green Zone across the river.
This is a "reasonably safe" area — as long as the insurgents don't target it, or there are no "short rounds."