WASHINGTON - At least 232 civilians have been killed while working on U.S.-funded contracts in Iraq and the death toll is rising rapidly, according to a U.S. government audit released on Sunday.
The quarterly report sent to Congress by the inspector general appointed to audit U.S.-funded work in Iraq said security problems were the biggest obstacle to Iraq's reconstruction and workers faced grave risks daily.
"One cannot spend a day in Iraq without quickly gaining a profound respect for all engaged in this endeavor," said Stuart Bowen, a former White House lawyer and now Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
"Their work and sacrifice in Iraq make all the more crucial our success in promoting economy, efficiency and effectiveness in preventing fraud, waste and abuse," he added in the report, released after Iraqis voted in elections bloodied by attacks.
People working on U.S.-funded projects in Iraq increasingly have been the targets of kidnapping and assassination by insurgents, who view them as collaborators with the U.S. military that invaded Iraq and ousted ex-President Saddam Hussein in 2003.
More than 1,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq but the U.S. government does not keep an official tally of the number of civilians slain while working on U.S.-funded projects there and in support of U.S. forces.
Bowen cited U.S. Labor Department statistics that showed companies had filed 232 compensation claims under the Defense Base Act (DBA) for workers killed there, an increase in the fourth quarter of 2004 of 93 percent.
The DBA requires all U.S. government contractors to acquire workers' compensation insurance for employees working in Iraq.
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Not all U.S. employers would have filed DBA claims for workers killed in Iraq and the death toll from civilians killed is likely to be higher than 232, said one U.S. official.
In addition, 728 DBA claims were filed for employees who missed more than four days of work. Several hundred more were reported from neighboring Kuwait where companies working in Iraq have logistics and support operations.
Bowen said the tough security environment was delaying projects funded by $18.4 billion set aside by Congress in 2003 to rebuild Iraq.
On Jan. 12, the Project and Contracting Office in Iraq, which is in charge of most U.S.-funded work there, said security issues delayed by two weeks 17 percent of their projects in central Iraq and 15 percent in northern Iraq.
Attacks on U.S.-funded work sites, convoys and employees averaged about 22 a week until Jan. 3, the report said.
Auditors said the cost of paying for private security workers in Iraq had increased dramatically and was significantly adding to overhead costs.
U.S rebuilding work in Iraq has been criticized for being too slow. The report said as of Jan. 5, only $2.4 billion of the total $18.4 billion had been spent on rebuilding and $10.3 billion had been contractually obligated for future work.
Bowen said his office had looked at 134 potential criminal cases involving U.S.-funded projects and 25 of these had been passed on to other U.S. agencies, 63 had been closed and his department was still looking at 46 cases.
The report also cited an audit by the State Department which estimated U.S. defense contractor DynCorp, a unit of Computer Sciences Corp, may have overcharged by about $685,000 to provide fuel for a U.S.-run police academy in Amman, Jordan. No other details were given of the case.
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