May 18, 2004
By Matt Kelley
Fewer than 25,000 Iraqis are working on projects in the U.S. reconstruction effort, tempering expectations that more than $18 billion in American spending would jump-start Iraq's economy and trigger a surge in goodwill toward the United States.
U.S. officials blame bureaucratic delays in contracting and the recent increase in violence for the low employment numbers, which represent less than 1 percent of Iraq's work force of more than 7 million.
The Bush administration is aiming to more than double the number of Iraqi workers to 50,000 in less than two months — when Washington expects to hand over limited authority to a caretaker Iraqi government.
Iraqis are thinking twice about working for the Americans because of the latest violence, which has targeted not only U.S. troops but also Iraqis working with them.
Violence earlier this spring "had an impact on the numbers of workers showing up," said Navy Capt. Bruce Cole, spokesman for the Pentagon's Iraq Program Management Office. "Some were probably afraid to be seen working with us on those projects. Our numbers are starting to come back up, though."
Conversely, military commanders have cited frustration over the continuing lack of jobs as one reason for the spike in violence, which left at least 136 Americans dead in April alone.
The violence puts the United States in a tough spot: More reconstruction is difficult without better security, while employing more Iraqis is one surefire way to increase security by calming the population.
The latest fighting not only prevented work on current projects but hampered future efforts by delaying the arrival of coalition equipment and manpower.
Members of Congress from both parties have criticized the Bush administration for the slow pace of reconstruction. So far, only about $1.9 billion in construction projects are under way from the $18.4 billion Congress approved in November.
"At a time when more and more of the Iraqi people are losing faith in our good intentions, this is a good indication of how few average Iraqis are seeing the benefits of reconstruction," said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House appropriations foreign operations subcommittee.
"More Iraqis clearly should be benefiting from the reconstruction efforts," she said.
Administration officials say they're trying to speed the hiring of Iraqis. More than $10 billion in contracts are expected to be awarded by July 1.
"We haven't had a problem with recruiting" Iraqis, Cole said. "In the areas we've been in, they're very willing to do the work, very eager to have jobs."
This week, the Pentagon's Program Management Office in Baghdad reported 24,179 Iraqis working on rebuilding projects funded by the $18.4 billion approved by Congress in November. That's up from 21,808 last week and just 3,517 the week before.
During April, Iraqis worked on only four projects — all of them rehabilitating military bases for the new Iraqi security forces, Cole said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. The four base rehabilitation projects, now nearing completion, once employed as many as 8,800 Iraqis.
Other reconstruction projects overseen by the military or State Department have created an estimated 400,000 jobs in Iraq, said Maj. Joe Yoswa, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority governing Iraq. Those projects are not part of the emergency rebuilding package Congress approved in November; most are paid for with seized Iraqi funds or oil revenues.
More than 6,000 Iraqis — in a total work force of more than 24,000 — are working for Halliburton Corp., which has contracts to rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure and supply U.S. troops, company spokeswoman Wendy Hall said.
U.S. Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer and other officials told Congress last fall the $18.4 billion was needed urgently to reverse instability and poverty and keep Iraq from becoming a fertile ground for terrorists.
Seven months later, U.S. officials say the needs are just as pressing.
"Of course we're not satisfied," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said. "We've got a lot of reasons why some things aren't where we want them to be, and security probably chief among them."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said "fairly lengthy contracting procedures" were another major holdup. Part of the delay arose from a squabble between the Pentagon and State Department over which agency would oversee the spending.
The Pentagon won and created the Program Management Office, which awarded several reconstruction contracts in March.
Those contracts call for hiring as many Iraqi companies and workers as possible, Cole said. Bechtel National Inc., which has a more than $1 billion contract to manage Iraq reconstruction, has hired 147 Iraqi firms out of 215 subcontractors, company spokeswoman Valerie Kazanjian said.
California-based Parsons Corp., which has several construction and management contracts in Iraq, has not hired many Iraqis because most of the projects are still being planned, company spokeswoman Erin Kuhlman said.
"Part of the goal of these programs is to put some life back into the economy, to hire local subcontractors as well as provide jobs," Kuhlman said. "We definitely are mindful of that. Besides, we don't have the labor force ourselves to send over there. That would be too expensive."
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press