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Everyone Wants a Piece of the $18-Billion Man in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

The man with $18 billion to spend is taking a beating.

Where’s the money to rebuild Iraq? The jobs for broke Iraqis? The promised health clinics and schools, bridges and dams, electricity and clean water?

Retired Rear Adm. David Nash gives the same answer to the skeptics who quiz him on America’s long-delayed effort to rebuild Iraq: Better times are coming.

“This country is going to take off,” said Nash, 61, the head of the U.S. effort to rebuild a nation devastated by a dozen years of sanctions, three wars and a simmering insurgency.

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After long delays and broken deadlines, there are signs that the largest reconstruction effort since World War II’s Marshall Plan is poised to get rolling.

New and refurbished power stations are starting up weekly. Private contractors are finishing plans for building thousands of schools, clinics and infrastructure projects. Iraqi jobs in the program have soared from 5,300 daily employees to more than 88,000.

But at least for now, there is little to show on the ground. Less than $900 million has been spent of $18.4 billion that Congress approved in November. Of 2,800 projects designed to make life better for Iraqis -- and in the process, safer for U.S. soldiers -- only 214 are under construction.

Ordinary Iraqis and U.S. officials have expressed growing concern that although the U.S. aid is finally arriving, it may have come too late to win the sympathy of the people, who have endured more than a year of haphazard electricity, water and other essential services.

A program that was supposed to convince the Iraqi people that U.S. money and know-how would improve their lives has instead left many bitter and no better off materially than they were under Saddam Hussein.

“You need to put more people to work to make them happy,” said Muthina Hussein, 27, an engineer who found a $250-a-week job on a U.S. reconstruction project on a military base. “The bad guys are saying America lies. They say it’s just like what Saddam did.”

It is little wonder, then, that Nash found more complaints than praise on a tour that provided a glimpse into the pitfalls of the U.S.-funded restoration.

A conference room for a branch of the U.S. Embassy by the banks of a tributary of the Euphrates River in Hillah was the first stop on Saturday’s helicopter tour of south-central Iraq, a trip intended to show Nash some of the fruits of his efforts over the last year.

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Instead, Nash ran smack into Anton Smith, who oversees the embassy branch and rebuilding efforts in Najaf, where cleric Muqtada Sadr’s latest rebellion against U.S. and Iraqi forces is in its third week. U.S. efforts have produced almost nothing in the troubled region, though some small projects have taken shape.

“It’s important that we raise some earth,” Smith pleaded with Nash. “Najaf’s need is immediate. It’s big. We need to move quickly to make sure we don’t lose them again. It’s in our national interests to win their hearts and minds.”

Smith, an intense State Department official, was most concerned that Nash give more autonomy in decision-making to local U.S. officials with more direct contact with regional needs and conditions.

“What we need to have is the authority and autonomy to make it work,” said Smith, upset by what he called redundancies and waste. “If all the triggers have to be pulled in Baghdad, we’re going to be frustrated.”

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Tight restrictions and high-level interference have dogged the effort. Congress demanded close control of the money spent in Iraq, a reaction in part to the freewheeling spending that accompanied the first months of the U.S. invasion. Pentagon officials often second-guessed decisions made in Iraq.

Like a pendulum swinging back, the new restrictions hamstrung U.S. officials in Baghdad from making major changes to a plan of dams, bridges and roads drawn up nearly a year ago after less than a month’s study of Iraq’s needs.

The State Department is expected to submit a request to Congress in the coming days to change some restrictions. But for now, Nash told Smith, there was limited flexibility.

Nash, who retired to a job at Parsons Brinckerhoff, a major engineering firm, before becoming the Iraq reconstruction czar in July 2003, was brought on board by top Pentagon officials in part because of his rectitude. He is widely regarded as a man who plays by the book, competent and careful.

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So far, Iraq’s realities have not shaken his intent on following Washington’s rules.

“Autonomy scares me.... Nobody has autonomy,” he told Smith. “There’s some boundaries we have to live with whether we like it or not.”

Next on his visit was a 15-minute drive in armored cars across dusty roads to Camp Babylon, headquarters for the Polish soldiers who control south-central Iraq as part of U.S.-led forces.

There, in an ornate high-ceilinged room with air conditioners blasting, Polish officers made a plea to Nash for help. They had no money for the coming year. The recent pullout of Thai and Philippine soldiers had left them without engineers or public health specialists.

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They seemed confused as to where to turn -- another feature of the reconstruction effort, whose complexity has drawn criticism from allies and private contractors alike. The final slide of the Polish presentation consisted of four question marks -- could Nash help?

Suddenly, a muffled boom shook the room. A car bomb had exploded, killing one Polish soldier and injuring six others. Col. Mariusz Saltera, the head of the Polish contingent’s public outreach efforts, shook his head. Last year, he traveled 6,000 miles throughout Iraq. This year, security concerns kept him confined to base.

“I can’t say this is really working,” Saltera said of the efforts as Nash huddled with Army officers to consult about the bombing.

In the end, they decided to skip their planned visit to a hospital and business center in Hillah. The team mounted two Black Hawk helicopters to ride to Numaniya, a sprawling, six-square-mile military base that private American contractors are building for the Iraqi army with $115 million in U.S. taxpayer money. The helicopter thundered low and fast over a barren landscape of scrub, mud huts and camel herders.

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The base was a wasteland of turned dirt and scorching sun. The featureless brown terrain wavered in 115-degree heat. Minutes after Nash landed, a pack of cars rumbled up in a cloud of dust. Nash’s security guards, men in dark glasses and bullet-proof vests, tensed. Out jumped a score of Iraqi men, many with AK-47s.

A man in a gray suit and top-buttoned white shirt strode forward and offered his hand. The local governor and tribal leader had come for a visit accompanied by his security detail.

Gov. Mohammed Jayshami exchanged pleasantries for 30 seconds, then got down to business. “The assistance we have received so far is minimal. I’d like to see more,” he said, smiling.

Nash responded with what by now had become pat. “It’s taken a little while to get things going, but we’re really getting going.”

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Surrounded by their entourages, the two men strode into a newly refurbished barracks. They stopped under a whirring fan, and then the electricity cut out. The air became stifling and the smell of fresh paint overwhelming. One of Jayshami’s men appeared with a box of pink tissues. He handed one to Nash. Sweating in his dark jacket, black pants and desert boots, Nash dabbed his forehead.

Jayshami acknowledged that members of his tribe had benefited from the project’s 1,200 jobs. But he said the word had not filtered down to most Iraqis.

“So far, everything you have done, nobody knows about,” he said. “If only the U.S. would promise the poor to take care of them ... half the insurgents would drop their weapons.”

Nash nodded. “One of my biggest problems is getting the information out,” he said.

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Then Jayshami announced that he needed war reparations. He said members of 75 families in his tribe had been killed mistakenly in a U.S. air raid. Each family would require from $17,000 to $35,000 in “blood money.” Jayshami ordered everyone out of the room so he could talk privately with Nash.

Through a spokesman, Nash said later that he had promised to look into the matter for Jayshami, and that an investigation into the claims was ongoing.

Late in the afternoon, Nash climbed back into the Black Hawk for the ride home.

He’d endured a car bomb, blistering sun and constant pleas for money to visit a single, incomplete U.S.-funded reconstruction project.

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If it shook his faith, he did not show it.

“That doesn’t just happen every day,” said Maj. Tom Sands, Nash’s military assistant.

Said Nash: “It does to me.”


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