Recent U.S. government audits show a mixed legacy of America's $50 billion reconstruction effort in Iraq. Many projects were good, while others wasted money.
As debate continues about the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and the transfer to Iraqi control, the U.S. military remains involved in reconstruction projects. Reports by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction highlight the depth of that involvement â€” and how it may be tricky to draw down the effort and hand over authority of some of the projects to the Iraqis.
North of Baghdad, in the desert outside the city of Baqouba, is a sprawling structure that locals have labeled "The Whale." It was meant to be a new maximum security prison, built by the U.S.
The only thing operational on the half-mile-wide, unfinished construction site is a makeshift guardhouse. Over the shack, an Iraqi flag waves in a steady breeze that feels like it is coming from a hair dryer. Two guards from the nearby town of Khan Bani Saad say that the Iraqi government was never asked if they wanted a prison here.
"The American company came to build this prison. Who we are to prevent them?" asks one of the guards.
A $40 Million Lesson
Iraq is desperately short of modern prisons, but that's beside the point. After paying $45 million to an American company, Parsons Corp., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers canceled the project three years ago: The facility was so poorly built that it is only fit for demolition, which would cost another few million dollars.
A local resident, who gave his name only as Abu Muhammad, says the project shaped his opinion of Americans.
"You know, Americans [are] human beings â€” some of them bad, some of them good," he says.
Walking around the half-built prison, Abu Muhammad says the Americans seem to have taken to the local way of doing business.
"I know a captain, one of [the] Americans. He put his hand [out to] the subcontractor like this, [saying,] 'We need money.' They learned from us," he says.
When asked if he thinks the Americans learned corruption from the Iraqis, Abu Muhammad replies, "Yes."
Ginger Cruz, the deputy special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction, calls the Khan Bani Saad prison "a $40 million lesson for the U.S. government in how not to do reconstruction."
But the inspector general's audits have turned up good examples, too: the Commander's Emergency Response Program, or CERP, for instance.
The money was seen as a crucial weapon in counterinsurgency and was used for everything from health clinics to paying the salaries of former insurgents who agreed to join the Sons of Iraq program, which is credited with neutralizing the sectarian war in Iraq.
But now the government of Iraq is paying those salaries, and U.S. soldiers have pulled out of cities, beginning a slow withdrawal from Iraq. The CERP program should shrink as well, Cruz says.
"Should CERP continue to get $500 million in 2010, at a time when the troops are drawing down, [and] there is a goal of having only 15,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by August 2010?" she says.
This year, the military actually ran out of ways to spend CERP money and returned a surplus of $247 million to the Treasury.
A Difficult Transition
Some of the more creative ways the money was spent may be harder to transfer to Iraqi control. For example, the U.S. Army built a hotel and business center near the Baghdad airport. But when the Army turned the business center over to Iraq's Transportation Ministry, the leather chairs and flat screen TVs were looted â€” by ministry officials.
The Army is now reluctant to hand over the hotel, which actually turns a profit. That leaves them in the hospitality business, says Cruz.
"As a result, the U.S. Army continues to have a management contract with a private firm that continues to run the hotel, which provides rooms at $225 a day at Baghdad International Airport," she says.
Cruz says that many of the CERP projects were managed responsibly and will be of great benefit to the Iraqi people.
Unfortunately, commanders realized during the worst of the insurgency that American-funded police stations and hospitals became targets for car bombs.
In response, they tried to conceal signs of U.S. funding, which means Iraqis will never know many of the things America built for them.