BAGHDAD, Iraq—It's not every day that a group of poor, uneducated Iraqis breaks into cheers for a high-ranking American official. That's what happened Tuesday when the U.S. reconstruction chief strode up to hundreds of workers who'd been hired to help dig Iraq's first environmentally sound landfill, in southwest Baghdad.
It was a welcome change for retired Adm. David Nash, who heads the newly renamed Projects and Contracting Office, which has been the subject of fierce criticism lately for the slow pace and missed goals of the Iraq reconstruction effort.
His office oversees the $18.4 billion that Congress earmarked last fall to help Iraq rebuild its decrepit infrastructure. Two recent government reports showed that the reconstruction is badly behind schedule, in part because insurgents have successfully derailed it through violence and sabotage.
Only 2 percent of the money had been spent as of last month, and just 30,000 Iraqis had been hired—painfully short of an original goal of 250,000. In some basic services, Iraq remains worse off than before the war.
Nash acknowledged a slow start, but said the reality was better than those numbers suggested. His office said Tuesday that 1,439 of 2,300 projects were under way, and more than $6 billion was "obligated" to pay for them. Nash said 30,000 to 60,000 Iraqis were working on those projects on any given day. And he said the numbers were climbing steadily.
The $22 million landfill project, which began five days ago and is employing 1,900 Iraqis, is an example of that, he said.
"It's taken us a while to get it going, but it's going now," he said, standing at the dusty landfill site in a black blazer and tie. "Obviously (insurgent violence) is a concern and it has an effect on us, but we're continuing to work, as we had even through the April time frame. A lot of the Iraqis didn't show up for work during that time frame, but they are now, and we're continuing to work."
Other projects are designed to improve electricity, water treatment, hospitals, the oil industry, public buildings, transportation infrastructure and security installations.
Violence has bedeviled the reconstruction effort by scaring away contractors and slowing supply lines, and Nash's 15-minute trip to the landfill from his office in the Green Zone, the protected area where Iraq's government is headquartered, underscored the perceived threat. He arrived in a convoy of armor-plated SUVs, while six helicopter gunships hovered overhead. A dozen machine-gun-toting private security guards surrounded him, and a company of U.S. soldiers in armored Humvees formed an outer perimeter.
American officials refused even to name the Iraqi firm that won the main subcontract on the landfill project.
Still, the project is a hopeful example of the dual benefits of the reconstruction program. When the construction firm FluorAMEC won the contract, it envisioned using heavy equipment to dig and clear rubble. But soldiers from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which polices Baghdad, suggested that the project be restructured to employ as many Iraqis with shovels as possible, said Col. Steve Lanza of New York, who commands the division's 5th Brigade.
"It's a jobs program, and it's also a force protection measure, because the local community has a stake in the project," he said. "We had 5,000 people show up to apply."
The project pays the Iraqi workers 8,000 dinars—$5.33—per day, a typical day laborer's wage. Lanza asked the local U.S.-appointed neighborhood advisory councils to provide the workers as a way of increasing their stature, he said, and he had a respected sheik coordinate the Iraqi work force at the job site.
A major criticism of the reconstruction program is that it hasn't been employing enough Iraqis, in a country where the 30 percent unemployment rate is seen as contributing to the insurgency. Nash said he was working to make projects more job-intensive, while balancing the need to do them quickly and efficiently.
Officials said the landfill, which will take in 3,000 cubic yards of waste per day, is being built according to modern environmental standards, with a liner and a drainage system to prevent water-table contamination.
Its status as Iraq's first modern landfill underscores how far the country has to go in sanitation and the environment.
Both civil and military authorities have contracted for trash collection in Baghdad, but the service is spotty and corruption-prone, and most people still seem to be dumping their garbage in vacant lots or on desolate streets.
Steel waste bins put in place recently by the 1st Cavalry Division in the Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City were broken apart by thieves and carted away.
A list of Iraqi reconstruction projects can be found on the Web at www.rebuilding-iraq.net.
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RECONSTRUCTION