By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 24, 2007 – U.S.-led reconstruction efforts in Iraq are making a tangible difference on the ground, but cannot quickly undo 25 years of systemic neglect of the country's infrastructure, the officer in charge of the rebuilding program said yesterday. "Our plan when we came in in 2003 was just to jumpstart the construction of the Iraqi infrastructure," said Army Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division.
However, a historic failure to maintain the country's physical plant under Saddam Hussein impeded rebuilding efforts from their outset, Walsh said.
Prior to the start of the reconstruction program, the World Bank estimated it would cost $100 billion to bring Iraq up to speed, the general noted. The United States has contributed $22 billion toward that goal, he explained. The remainder is to be supplied by the government of Iraq and donor nations.
With the U.S. funds spent so far, Walsh said, the Corps of Engineers have completed 3,200 projects around Iraq. Average daily hours of power have increased from 11 to 13 hours per day; oil production capacity is in line with the U.S. goal of 3 million barrels per day; and 138 primary health care clinics are nearing completion throughout the country, he said.
Walsh explained that while the reconstruction program has been generally panned or overlooked by the mainstream media, there are important data points to keep in mind when evaluating rebuilding progress.
To those who've characterized Baghdad as being "plunged into darkness" at times, Walsh noted, "Iraq never did have 24 hours level of power." In fact, he said, much of Baghdad is now often illuminated at night because of shared generators placed throughout neighborhoods.
"They do have power," the general clarified. "What they don't have is power off of the grid."
In the health care realm, Walsh said, U.S. forces are renovating 20 hospitals across Iraq, in addition to the primary care clinics being built. He described the facilities as "turnkey," meaning that at completion they would be transferred to the Iraqi Ministry of Health for staffing and to oversee their day-to-day operations.
As with most projects involving the Iraqi government, logistics and operational planning remain a challenge, Walsh admitted.
"Their logistics systems are difficult, and they're running shortages on a lot of consumables," he said. In addition, he noted, transportation of fuel to run hospital generators is an area of concern.
That said, Walsh observed, the last time he visited a hospital "the doctors and nurses were in place, and they were taking care of the Iraqi people as they come through the door."
In the oil sector, production stands at 2.6 million barrels per day, with an additional 400,000 barrels per day in spare capacity, Walsh said. "The difficulty right now is making sure the pipelines stay intact," he noted.
In total, Walsh said, the rebuilding program is making solid headway in a less-than-ideal security environment against a mandate that would take multiple years even in a stable setting.
Approaching the mission from the perspective of an engineer, he observed, "I've been doing this for 29 years, and it takes a long time to put infrastructure together."
By way of comparison, he noted that large infrastructure- construction projects often take years to complete in the United States.
Expectations must be managed and context must be considered in evaluating the reconstruction mission, Walsh reiterated in his closing comments.
"So we've been at it (in Iraq) for three years, and people say, 'Well, have you made a significant change in the infrastructure?'" he said. "I would say, 'yes.' But again it's been under-funded for 25 years. We're not going to turn it around in three years."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)
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