Iraq is worse off than before the war began, GAO reports

Jun. 29, 2004 | Knight Ridder Newspapers

By Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON – In a few key areas – electricity, the judicial system and overall security – the Iraq that America handed back to its residents Monday is worse off than before the war began last year, according to calculations in a new General Accounting Office report released Tuesday.

The 105-page report by Congress’ investigative arm offers a bleak assessment of Iraq after 14 months of U.S. military occupation. Among its findings:

-In 13 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, electricity was available fewer hours per day on average last month than before the war. Nearly 20 million of Iraq’s 26 million people live in those provinces.

-Only $13.7 billion of the $58 billion pledged and allocated worldwide to rebuild Iraq has been spent, with another $10 billion about to be spent. The biggest chunk of that money has been used to run Iraq’s ministry operations.

-The country’s court system is more clogged than before the war, and judges are frequent targets of assassination attempts.

-The new Iraqi civil defense, police and overall security units are suffering from mass desertions, are poorly trained and ill-equipped.

-The number of what the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority called significant insurgent attacks skyrocketed from 411 in February to 1,169 in May.

The report was released on the same day that the CPA’s inspector general issued three reports that highlighted serious management difficulties at the CPA. The reports found that the CPA wasted millions of dollars at a Hilton resort hotel in Kuwait because it didn’t have guidelines for who could stay there, lost track of how many employees it had in Iraq and didn’t track reconstruction projects funded by international donors to ensure they didn’t duplicate U.S. projects.

Both the GAO report and the CPA report said that the CPA was seriously understaffed for the gargantuan task of rebuilding Iraq. The GAO report suggested the agency needed three times more employees than what it had. The CPA report said the agency believed it had 1,196 employees, when it was authorized to have 2,117. But the inspector general said CPA’s records were so disorganized that it couldn’t verify its actual number of employees.

GAO Comptroller General David Walker blamed insurgent attacks for many of the problems in Iraq. “The unstable security environment has served to slow down our rebuilding and reconstruction efforts and it’s going to be of critical importance to provide more stable security,” Walker told Knight Ridder Newspapers in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“There are a number of significant questions that need to be asked and answered dealing with the transition (to self-sovereignty),” Walker said. “A lot has been accomplished and a lot remains to be done.”

The GAO report is the first government assessment of conditions in Iraq at the end of the U.S. occupation. It outlined what it called “key challenges that will affect the political transition” in 10 specific areas.

The GAO gave a draft of the report to several different government agencies, but only the CPA offered a major comment: It said the report “was not sufficiently critical of the judicial reconstruction effort.”

“The picture it paints of the facts on the ground is one that neither the CPA nor the Bush administration should be all that proud of,” said Peter W. Singer, a national security scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution. “It finds a lot of problems and raises a lot of questions.”

One of the biggest problems, Singer said, is that while money has been pledged and allocated, not much has been spent. The GAO report shows that very little of the promised international funds – most of which are in loans – has been spent or can’t be tracked. The CPA’s inspector general found the same thing.

“When we ask why are things not going the way we hoped for,” Singer said, “the answer in part of this is that we haven’t actually spent what we have in pocket.”

He said the figures on electricity “make me want to cry.”

Steven Susens, a spokesman for the Program Management Office, which oversees contractors rebuilding Iraq, conceded that many areas of Iraq have fewer hours of electricity now than they did before the war. But he said the report, based on data that’s now more than a month old, understates current electrical production. He said some areas may have reduced electricity availability because antiquated distribution systems had been taken out of service so they could be rebuilt.

“It’s a slow pace, but it’s certainly growing as far as we’re concerned,” Susens said.

Danielle Pletka, the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said other issues are more important than the provision of services such as electricity. She noted that Iraqis no longer live in fear of Saddam Hussein.

“It’s far better to live in the dark than it is to run the risk that your mother, father, brother, sister, husband or wife would be taken away never to be seen again,” Pletka said.

Pletka pointed to a Pentagon slide presentation that detailed increases and improvement in telephone subscribers, water service, food, health care and schools in Iraq.

But Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that asked for the GAO report, said the report showed major problems.

“So while we’ve handed over political sovereignty, we haven’t handed over practical capacity – that is, the ability for the Iraqis themselves to provide security, defend their borders, defeat the insurgency, deliver basic services, run a government and set the foundation for economic progress,” Biden said in a written statement. “Until Iraqis can do all of that, it will be impossible for us to responsibly disengage from Iraq.”

The GAO report can be found at

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