In a major shift within the much-criticized US$18.4 billion program to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, the Pentagon office formed to oversee the effort will begin handing its responsibilities over to the Army Corps of Engineers over the next several months.
Charles Hess, director of the agency, the Project and Contracting Office, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad that the change was a natural evolution. He denied the move was a response to Iraqi and US criticism that the reconstruction had focused too much on large projects, started too slowly and failed to anticipate attacks by insurgents.
While the US tries to lay the groundwork for a functioning Iraqi government before elections on Jan. 30, some criticisms of the reconstruction program have carried a particular sting: A major goal of the reconstruction, from power plants and sewage-treatment plants to roads and fire stations, was to persuade ordinary Iraqis of the goodwill and competence of the post-Saddam Hussein authorities.
While the Corps has increased electricity output and both agencies have put in place other, smaller-scale projects, most major efforts have faced delays. Insurgent attacks have hit both the projects and the workers, prompting some large companies to pull out of Iraq, sending security costs skyrocketing and forcing the elimination or scaling down of dozens of projects.
Hess defended the reconstruction program as successful, given the hard realities of Iraq, and said the gradual shift of responsibility to the Corps, with its history of managing construction project in conflict zones, had long been envisioned.
However, Rick Barton, co-director of the post-conflict reconstruction program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the shift "is a further confirmation that the place isn't safe."
"I assume that the Army Corps feels better about going places that are just plain dangerous," he said.
The Corps has largely avoided the criticism that has dogged the project office.
The Corps has had a much lower profile and has enjoyed some construction successes in Iraq. Its electrical projects have added more than 1,800 megawatts to the Iraqi grid, roughly the equivalent of two large power plants.
But major Corps projects, like huge waterway projects in the US, have also been criticized as grandiose and unresponsive to local needs. And it was the Corps that awarded Halliburton an early no-bid contract worth billions of dollars for work on Iraq's oil fields, which opened the company to harsh criticism.
Whether the Corps will fare better than the project office is open to question, Barton said. Success in Iraq means engaging the local populace, he said, and "that hasn't been their strength even domestically."
Brigadier General Thomas Bostick, commander of the Corps in the Persian Gulf, said that because the two organizations had been working hand-in-glove from the start, he did not regard the switch as a substantial change. Rather, he said, the project office, with its emphasis on planning, would slim down as more contracts moved into construction.
"I see this as a natural progression," Bostick said. "To say it's going to change, and is going to change as a result of negative perception, is not correct."
The contracting office and the projects it finances employ about 155 government workers in Baghdad and the US, about 250 contractors in Iraq and just over 100,000 Iraqis who work on the construction itself.