Robert Novak

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.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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