Wed, Jul 28, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US wants review of Iraq relief program

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

A US Army soldier extinguishes the remnants of a fire caused by an explosion from a car bomb outside an airfield near the northern Iraq city of Mosul on Monday. A suicide car bomber exploded a vehicle outside an American base near the northern city of Mosul, killing an Iraqi woman, her child, an Iraqi guard.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Impatient with slow progress in the rebuilding of Iraq, the US Department of State is conducting a major review of the US$18.4 billion program, seeking ways to provide more jobs and visible results more quickly to Iraqis, according to American diplomats and private advisers.

The aid effort, intended to transform Iraq's crumbling infrastructure as it wins the support of the Iraqi people, was adopted by Congress in the fall of last year. While the Pentagon was initially put in charge of designing projects and doling out contracts, it has increasingly shared authority with the State Department.

But the program has moved more slowly than many officials had expected: only about one-third of the money has been designated for specific projects so far, and most of those ventures are still in planning stages.

The Pentagon's approach to the aid -- focusing on huge power, water and other building projects, with billion-dollar-plus "prime contracts" given to a small number of American firms -- has also been criticized by development experts and some diplomats as misdirected and wasteful.

A new look at spending goals and methods has been a priority of the new US ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, who took charge of the American mission after the transfer of formal sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 28.

William Taylor, a State Department official who previously worked in Afghanistan, is managing the review, which officials hope to complete by early next month. Later this year, he is expected to take over as the Baghdad-based chief coordinator of aid, replacing David Nash, the retired navy admiral who has directed rebuilding so far.

State Department officials agree that Iraq's decayed and war-damaged infrastructure needs an overhaul, and they say they do not expect to fundamentally alter the aid program's aims, although they will consult with Congress on recommended changes.

But they are asking, for example, whether larger amounts should pass through Iraqi ministries with careful conditions rather than be handed to Western firms; whether labor-intensive building methods, spreading jobs and benefits, can be more strongly supported; and whether some large-scale infrastructure needs might just as well be met by international lending agencies like the World Bank, according to a senior State Department official.

"The Iraqis deservedly have a reputation for knowing their own system," the official said in an interview on Monday, noting the enormous confusion and start-up costs as Western firms moved quickly into the alien territory of Iraq over the past year.

Diplomats are going out of their way to describe the review as a routine and long-planned step. But after the American-led invasion of Iraq in March last year, some officials complained that the Pentagon pushed aside the State Department's planning for restoring the traumatized society. Aid experts criticized what they saw as the military's reflexive "big project, big contract" approach to aid. The Defense Department remains formally in charge of most contracting in Iraq, but must share increasing authority with the State Department.

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