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US: Congress Is Told of Failures of Rebuilding Work in Iraq

by James GlanzThe New York Times
September 28th, 2006

In a sweeping new assessment of reconstruction failures in Iraq, a federal inspector told Congress on Thursday that 13 of 14 major projects built by the American contractor Parsons that were examined by his agency were substandard, with construction deficiencies and other serious problems.

The final project, a prison near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, was terminated for other reasons, said the inspector, Stuart Bowen, who heads the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Delays and cost overruns led to its cancellation.

Whether because the political stakes in Iraq have risen with the approach of the November elections, or simply because of the scope of the problems, Mr. Bowen’s testimony set off outrage on both sides of the political aisle on a topic — reconstruction failures — that previously was mostly in the sights of Congressional Democrats.

“So when they get the construction right, something else goes wrong?” said Representative John M. McHugh, Republican of New York, referring to cost and schedule problems that had plagued many projects.

“Wow — thank you,” Mr. McHugh said, seemingly speechless for a moment after Mr. Bowen answered in the affirmative.

Work by two of the other largest contractors in Iraq — Bechtel and KBR, which was formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root and is a subsidiary of Halliburton — also came in for severe criticism during the lengthy hearing.

The problems with Iraq reconstruction have become notorious enough that protesters engulfed Cliff Mumm, president of the Bechtel infrastructure division, as he emerged onto the street and tried to hail a taxi after his testimony before the House Government Reform Committee.

“Eviction notice for Bechtel and its subsidiaries!” a protester shouted through a megaphone.

Democrats and Republicans on the panel posed some of the most scathing questions yet to executives from Parsons, a company that has received little but criticism in the last year for projects including prisons, border forts, clinics and hospitals.

Before his testimony, Mr. Bowen made available copies of an inspection report on one of the 13 substandard projects, a $72 million police college in Baghdad where plumbing work was so poor that the pipes burst, dumping urine and fecal matter throughout the college’s buildings. The Washington Post reported on some of those problems on Thursday.

Earnest O. Robbins II, a Parsons vice president, struggled to explain how tests could have missed such fundamental problems, in which the pipes were often not joined by proper fixtures but simply set end to end and fastened with concrete.

How could the tests “not reveal these massive, massive problems?” asked Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland.

“I have some conjectures and that’s all it would be,” Mr. Robbins said, “and that is, it took a while of use for this to manifest itself, for the fittings to come loose or whatever.”

The industry witnesses also fired back at their Congressional questioners, pointing out that their work generally met with the approval of government entities that were supposed to be overseeing the work. Mr. Mumm, of Bechtel, brought a hush to the room when he listed 24 Iraqi employees on the hospital project who had been killed by local militias or insurgents, greatly slowing the work. The Iraqi site manager was murdered, the site engineer’s daughter was kidnapped and “they summarily marched out our mechanical contractor and murdered 12 of them,” Mr. Mumm said.

Democrats spent much of the day connecting the reconstruction effort, which has cost an estimated $30 billion to $45 billion in Iraqi and American financing, to the wider effort in Iraq.

“This debacle is not just a waste of taxpayers’ funds, and it doesn’t just impact the reconstruction,” Representative Henry A. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said of one of the failed projects. “It impedes the entire effort in Iraq. This is the lens in which the Iraqis will view America.”

Representative Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who is the committee’s chairman, began his own remarks by charging that critics of the reconstruction “oversimplify, distort and prejudge the outcome of a complex contracting process to fit the preordained conclusion that everything goes wrong in Iraq.”

But then even Mr. Davis concluded that when it came to reconstruction, “original plans were wildly optimistic,” and that only a fraction of originally planned water and electricity projects had been completed. As the hearing wore on, Mr. Davis expressed shock at statistics like the 13 of 14 projects that Mr. Bowen had found were substandard.

“What is going on here?” Mr. Davis asked. The question was never fully answered.

The 14 Parsons projects included three border forts in the north with undersize and inadequate structural beams and incomplete security measures; five health clinics around Kirkuk with crumbling concrete; and a hospital in Babil Province that also had structural problems.

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