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Published: Saturday, 11/18/2006

The unbuilding of Iraq

IF THERE is a scandal worse than the stealth by which the United States was led into war in Iraq, it is the abject failure of American efforts to rebuild that war-torn nation, despite big talk and big money.

In terms of its infrastructure and public services, Iraq is worse off than before the U.S. invasion in March, 2003, even though at least $38 billion in taxpayer funds has been spent.

The overriding reason is the insurgent violence that American military and civilian leaders underestimated from the first and never provided enough troops to control. Poor planning and coordination by U.S. officials and equally inept site planning by contractors hired for the rebuilding also are to blame.

As Clifford Mumm, a project manager for Bechtel Corp. for the past three years told the Washington Post, "We accomplished a significant amount of work but it was just overwhelmed by the overlay of violence. It's very hard to be optimistic."

Optimism was in abundance in the fall of 2003 when President Bush promised to give Iraq "the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan," which rebuilt Europe after World War II. Congress followed with a big appropriation.

But three years later, as the administration seeks an honorable way out of the quagmire under political pressure, promises of rebuilding are about all that remain.

Work that has been done is overshadowed by the fact that the plight of ordinary Iraqis is no better - and often worse - than before.

"What reconstruction?" asked a taxi driver interviewed by the Post. "Today we are drinking untreated water from a plant built decades ago that was never maintained. The electricity only visits us two hours a day. And now we are going backwards. We cook on the firewood we gather from the forests because of the gas shortage."

This is not to say that there haven't been some success stories. Millions of children have been vaccinated and hundreds of schools have been repaired.

But many other projects, including a system of health centers, are left uncompleted, and the U.S. promise of rebuilding the nation it sought to save from a brutal dictator is left mostly unfulfilled.

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