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Iraq Reconstruction "Less Than Optimal"

The U.S. government must learn from its multi-million-dollar mistakes of poor contract oversight and bad planning in its Iraq reconstruction effort or risk repeating them there and elsewhere, investigators say.

The audit released Thursday by Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, is the first to list in one place the series of mistakes, delays and missed opportunities in a four-year-old Iraq war and reconstruction effort that has cost taxpayers nearly $400 billion.

Characterizing the U.S. effort as chaotic and poorly managed, Bowen found the Bush administration's rebuilding effort riddled with problems — from a lack of strategy and unclear lines of authority to confusion and disarray between the Defense and State Departments.

Bowen said the two departments must learn how to work more closely together. If their cultures prove too resistant to change, Congress should consider legislation to force better cooperation between them in running future U.S. military and civilian reconstruction efforts.

"Although no single U.S. agency demonstrated the capacity to manage the large and complex Iraq program alone, the resultant and unavoidably ad hoc response that sometimes ensued was less than optimal," according to the audit, which urges strengthening joint staff between the two departments.

Among the findings:

  • A Defense Department agency charged with running the reconstruction effort never developed a fully coordinated plan upon members' arrival in 2003, leading to confusion and duplication of effort. "We were bumping into one another as we tried to solve the same problem," a former agency official is quoted as saying.
  • Money flowed to reconstruction projects before procedures, training and staffing were fully in place, resulting in a "lack of clearly defined authorities" and little accountability in terms of how dollars were being spent.
  • Only three contracting officers were initially sent to Baghdad to oversee spending of reconstruction dollars. As a result, some contract files were in disarray or missing while others were stored on personal e-mail accounts and individual hard drives.
  • There was little oversight to ensure that Iraqi companies hired to do reconstruction work operated according to international standards. In a case involving the Baghdad Police Academy, the Iraqi subcontractor used cement joints to seal wastewater pipes, a practice used by Iraqi construction firms.

    But the cement joints leaked, causing major interior damage to the police facilities. The failure also raised concerns about health hazards as wastewater leaked through floors, ran down halls and filled ceiling lights. Because of the substantial repairs required, some of the planned construction for the $73 million project was canceled.

Bowen's office released the 157-page audit in advance of his appearance Thursday before a Senate committee hearing on the U.S. way forward in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report does not take a position on whether greater U.S. involvement in the region is needed. But it makes clear that the U.S. government must clearly rethink its approach to future efforts, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Earlier this year, federal investigators determined that the Bush administration had squandered as much as $10 billion in reconstruction aid in part because of poor planning and contract oversight, resulting in contractor overcharges and unsupported expenses.

By Hope Yen

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