WASHINGTON -- The United States is paying out about $200 million a week to contractors involved in rebuilding Iraq, where insurgents have slowed down ambitious U.S.-funded reconstruction plans.
Bill Taylor, the outgoing U.S. official overseeing rebuilding work in Iraq, said in an interview on Tuesday projects were moving ahead despite soaring security costs, which U.S. auditors say can chew up half of the funding.
Taylor, who is set to finish his assignment in Iraq on Thursday, gave a more modest estimate and said security costs amounted to an average 10-15 percent of the overall price.
"That is still a lot of money to be spending to secure ourselves ... but you have to pay a little bit of a higher price because of the insurgency," he said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Congress appropriated $18.4 billion to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure.
But two years later, Iraqis complain their electricity grid is more fragile than ever and promises to improve their daily lives have not materialized.
Criticism has also been rife in Congress, where hearings focus on the pace of rebuilding, contractor abuse and the award of billions of dollars of work to companies with close ties to the Bush administration such as Texas-based Halliburton <HAL.N>, which was once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Taylor strongly rejects suggestions the rebuilding program has not had an impact and points to completed projects as proof.
He said the United States was paying out about $200 million a week to contractors and $5.3 billion had been disbursed in total of the $18.4 billion. A further $12.9 billion had been "obligated," or put under contract.
"This is not a stalled program. This is a program going forward very fast," he said.
Taylor said in the past 10 months, 57 U.S.-funded electricity projects, ranging from big to small, had been completed and 103 more were in progress.
Rebuilding has carried huge risks for contractors who have been targets for kidnappings and attack by insurgents.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicate as of March 31, 276 civilians had died while working on U.S. government-funded contracts in Iraq.
The statistics do not state the cause of death but most are believed to be at the hands of insurgents rather than for medical reasons, vehicle or other accidents.
Taylor will be returning to the State Department where his job will be to look at what lessons can be learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was assigned before.
"The main lesson I think is that it's important when looking at both Afghanistan and Iraq to get the Afghans and the Iraqis in charge quickly ... That is the key to success," Taylor said.
In the early days of reconstruction, the United States restricted contracts to U.S. companies and those from countries which supported the U.S. invasion. The focus has now shifted to getting Iraqi companies and the new ministries involved.
In a pilot program this year, the United States gave contracting authority to Iraq's construction ministry to build two bridges and a freeway with U.S. funds. Previously, U.S. agencies handled contracts.
"That process is already off to a very good start and if it continues that way it will be a successful program we will want to emulate," said Taylor of the pilot program.
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