As we speed down the Tigris River under a brilliant sun in a fiberglass skiff, Iraq almost seems like Vacationland–but only for a moment. Soon we’re dodging the half-submerged barges and ferries sunk in last year’s bombing. Then two Black Hawk helicopters dash low overhead, their menacing door gunners fully visible.
Farther on, there are more bad signs. A strange column of dark smoke rises from a lush palm grove. And suddenly, huge nauseating plumes of raw sewage spill from pipes at Baghdad’s southern edge.
Not far from these fetid torrents are several major water-intake stations and a handful of fishermen setting long gill nets from wooden boats. Several of the fishermen, their vessels tucked in the shade of reed patches waiting for the nets to fill, say the catch is in decline. “Sometimes the fish tastes and smells like sewage,” explains one. Downriver, millions of people in cities like Basra draw their water from the Tigris.
The sorry state of this river is just one piece of Iraq’s failed reconstruction. Throughout the country, vital systems, from water and power to healthcare and education, are in woeful disrepair. The World Bank estimates that bringing Iraq back to its 1991 level of development will cost $55 billion and take at least four years.
In the past seventeen months, US taxpayers have set aside a total of $24 billion to rebuild Iraq. Most of that sum has not been spent, though billions of dollars of poorly accounted for Iraqi oil revenues have been expended, or at least allocated to foreign (mostly American) contractors.
Humanitarians see reconstruction as a moral obligation: a form of reparations for two US-led wars and thirteen years of brutal sanctions. From a military standpoint, reconstruction is central to the US counterinsurgency effort. The occupation’s star officers, like Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, readily acknowledge that a broken economy means more violence. But seen up close, reconstruction in Iraq looks less like a mission of mercy or a sophisticated pacification program and more like a criminal racket.
At the Rustimiyah South sewage-treatment plant, all is quiet except for a few mourning doves in the eucalyptus trees and a handful of Iraqi construction workers building a brick shed to house a new generator. This plant and its sister facility, Rustimiyah North, have been sitting dry–waiting for Bechtel, the largest US construction company and one of the lead contractors in occupied Iraq.
As soon as Baghdad fell, Bechtel was in Iraq making deals with USAID, the government agency tasked with overseeing reconstruction. In total, the firm now has more than $2.8 billion in Iraq reconstruction jobs. As the “primary” contractor on much of Iraq’s water system, as well as key parts of its power grid and some of the healthcare infrastructure, Bechtel’s responsibilities are quite broad. Its initial April 2003 contract stated:
The contractor will commence repairs of water infrastructure in 10 urban areas within the first month. Within the first 6 months the contractor will repair or rehabilitate critical water treatment, pumping and distribution systems in 15 urban areas. Within 12 months potable water supply will be restored in all urban centers, by the end of the program approximately 45 urban water systems will be repaired and put in good operational condition, and environmentally sound solid waste disposal will be established.