Slowdown in Iraq

Robert Novak
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Posted: Dec 29, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- A pall was cast over Christmas for disappointed U.S. government civilians in Baghdad when they received word two weeks ago that the $18.6 billion for Iraq's reconstruction rushed through Congress in November was indefinitely on hold. They have been told not to issue "requests for proposal," which surely will extend the promised Feb. 1 date for contract awards and, therefore, the beginning of reconstruction.

No official announcement of the slowdown has been made, though the Pentagon has confirmed published reports. The closely held decision to hold up the process was made in Washington, with no explanation to anybody out of the Defense Department's inner circle -- not even to the Pentagon's own minions in Baghdad. The informed speculation is that the Bush administration is rethinking whether countries who opposed the Iraqi intervention should be cut off from reconstruction.

Whatever the cause of the delay, its impact is undeniable. It postpones the flood of dollars into Iraq and the visible improvement of Iraq's infrastructure, which U.S. military and civilians on the ground there have expected would suppress support for guerrilla activity. Unprepared for what was required after the military triumph last May, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's team in Washington is still a step behind in capitalizing on the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Nobody is more disappointed by these latest developments than retired Adm. David J. Nash, a civil engineer in Baghdad running the Program Management Office (PMO) in charge of managing the $18.6 billion in infrastructure reconstruction. Nash, who headed the Parsons Brinckerhoff construction firm in Warren, Mich., after 33 years in the Navy, came to Baghdad as part of the new team of technocrats sent to rebuild the country.

Industrial leaders invited to meetings in Washington and London had been informed that contracts would be awarded Feb. 1, with construction to begin soon thereafter. When word of the delay seeped out after Hussein was taken into custody, the Defense Department told the Engineering News-Record on Dec. 16: "This is an incredibly complex process." Last Friday, a Pentagon spokesman told this column that the requests for proposal "are the responsibility" of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad and are still being "coordinated" there.

Actually, the delay was ordered in Washington as a consequence of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's widely criticized order of Dec. 5 that barred Germany, France, Russia and China from reconstruction contracts. As special envoy James Baker negotiated with these countries for forgiveness of Iraqi debt, the expectation by officials in Baghdad was that they eventually will be ordered from Washington to issue their requests with all countries now eligible to bid.

However, officials at the CPA ask privately, will the U.S. in return get the dispatch of French and German troops to Iraq to share in the fighting and dying? Or, alternatively, might French and German soldiers go to Afghanistan or at least the Balkans to replace Americans, releasing them for service elsewhere? If George W. Bush does not make such a deal and opens up the construction bids in return for just debt forgiveness, one official told me, "it will appear the president has been snookered."

There is no disagreement inside the American team that the national interest would be best served the more quickly Iraqi rebuilding begins. This will cut into Iraq's huge unemployed labor pool and invigorate the economy. In addition, it may provide evidence of the U.S. long-term commitment to the country. "If the people see siding with us as the wave of the future," one official told me, "maybe they will help frustrate the terrorists."

The terrorists will do their best to disrupt reconstruction projects, but the power of elements waging guerrilla warfare suffers from losing the source of devotion of what CPA officials call the "Cult of Saddam." Since his capture, his followers and other guerrillas have stepped up the pace of their attacks. But U.S. intelligence is cutting into Hussein's support networks, and the military struggle is turning into a genuine police action. What's needed now is the rapid utilization of that $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq, and that is why the unexplained slowdown is so frustrating.