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.

None of those deadlines have been met–but luckily Bechtel’s contracts are indemnified with loophole phrases like “depending on the availability of equipment.”

The Rustimiyah sewage plants are among the few facilities given explicit mention as priority projects in Bechtel’s contract-related documents. Together the two plants should handle all the sewage from Baghdad’s populous east side, known as Rusafa; before the war the plants were fully functional but working beyond capacity. During the invasion they were knocked out by fighting and were then further damaged by looting. The sister plants haven’t processed any sewage since April 2003.

Now their daily flow of 780,000 cubic yards of human and industrial waste–a nasty cocktail of organic solids, heavy metals and poisonous chemicals from a battery factory, a soap factory, an electronics plant and other light industry–goes directly into the Diyala River, which joins the Tigris seven miles southwest of the plants. A third plant, farther north, has just started up again, but it is working at only about 20 percent capacity.

Rustimiyah South’s director is Riyidh Numan, a hospitable and reflective engineer in his early 30s working for the Baghdad Sewage Authority. Since Bechtel took over a year ago, his job has mostly consisted of sitting around and waiting for the foreign contractors to execute the repairs. Numan says the first thing Bechtel did when it showed up was to start painting buildings. He demanded that they stop and switch to repairing the plant’s primary functions. Since then work has been slow, and all Numan can do is complain to the Baghdad Sewage Authority, which in turn dispatches impotent letters to Bechtel.

On a tour of the wrecked plant, we stroll past the empty desiccation beds and the empty settlement and de-greasing tanks and then descend three stories below ground into the plant’s guts. In a dimly lit, cavernous pit lined with massive pipes and VW-bug-sized German pumps, Numan speaks more freely.

“Bechtel got angry at me when I talked to Azzaman,” he says, referring to a major Iraqi newspaper. “We were supposed to be back on line in June, then September. Now it’s January. Every day we send untreated sewage into the river, thousands of people downstream become sick.” He pauses. “This work is more important than schools. It’s more important than hospitals. This is about preventing problems.”

Will Rustimiyah South be on line by New Year’s? For a moment it seems like Numan won’t answer the question, then, looking in the pit below, he says, “No, this will not get done. The parts aren’t even here yet.” Asked about these problems, Bechtel spokesman Francis Canavan acknowledged the regrettable delays in the sewage rehab work but attributed them to the complicated nature of the task: Many old machines have to be custom rebuilt in Europe. And then there is the abysmal security. Looting and ambushes on all the main highways have held up the arrival of crucial parts.

But Iraqi engineers and engineering professors I interviewed at water-treatment plants and power stations and at Baghdad University all claim that the work could be going much faster if the “accumulated knowledge” of Iraqi engineers were put to better use.

“These systems, their repairs, they are not all on some blueprint somewhere,” says Gazwan Muktar, a rather intense, highly intellectual retired electrical engineer. “You need to have the people who spent twenty years running these irrigation canals or power plants to be there. They know the tricks; they know the quirks. But the foreign contracts ignore Iraqis, and as a result they get nowhere!”

Conditions at the other end of the pipe–that is, at Baghdad’s seven drinking-water-treatment plants–are also bad. At the Mishrul Magi Al Wahady plant, a crew of about a dozen engineers and technicians wage a quiet struggle to supply 15-20 percent of the city’s potable water. Al Wahady first went on line in the early 1950s. Its capacity is now stretched to the limit, and a few miles upstream two sewage-discharge stations contaminate the river, making the plant’s job even harder.

The plant needs lots of help. It lacks a forklift to move the huge metal canisters of chlorine gas (which comes from UNICEF, not Bechtel). It lacks emergency medical gear, basic tools and a lab to test its water for biological contamination or excess chlorine. Most treatment plants test their water three times a day, but here a mobile technician takes samples to a lab only three times a week.

The manager, Jabbar Sattar, needs a car–his was shot up by US troops a year ago and now sits on the plant’s lawn as a totem to close calls and longevity. To get to the local government offices downtown or check on the plants’ riverfront intake pumps, Sattar has to take cabs and use his own money. The plant even needs mundane things like lighting, a bathroom and desks.

“We had big promises from Bechtel, but I only met with them twice,” says Sattar. There is one bit of good news: At the beginning of June, the US Army Corps of Engineers started supplying emergency spare parts and tools and helping to refurbish some of the plant’s intake pumps down by the river.

The situation is almost identical at several other water-treatment plants I visited. Bechtel and its subcontractors are rarely around; the local managers are kept in the dark about what work is planned; the emergency support (such as supplies of chlorine gas and spare parts) comes from UNICEF, the Red Cross, the Swiss Embassy or various European NGOs and more recently from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Bechtel is never mentioned as providing help.

“Water is very important to life,” says Layla Mijbil, deputy manger of the Al Wathba water-treatment plant in north central Baghdad. “And when there is no care for water there is no care for Iraqi life.” Bizarrely, Bechtel waves off these complaints with reference to the limits placed on it by USAID’s job orders.

“We only do work that we have a job order for,” explains Bechtel’s Canavan. Who generates these job orders? USAID. And how does USAID make these decisions? “We submit the job orders to them for approval,” says Canavan. It still seems that Bechtel simply gets to decide on its own how much work it will, or will not, do for $2.8 billion of US taxpayers’ money. Canavan doesn’t like this suggestion and says I am visiting the wrong places. I should go to the Sharkh Dijlah treatment plant, formally known as the Saba Nissan plant, or Seventh of April (named for an old Baathist holiday).

“We are doing a major expansion on that facility, says Canavan. All the equipment is brand-new. It’s a major investment which will really help Baghdad.”

As at most job sites, getting in requires five signatures from various Iraqi bureaucracies. When I finally get to the Sharkh Dijlah, just north of Baghdad, there is indeed construction under way, but no workers around. Bechtel has just sent out a warning about guerrilla attacks, and the night before some mortars landed in a village just outside the plant.

The Sharkh Dijlah expansion will increase the plant’s potable outflow from 120 million gallons a day to 170 million. But on closer examination, the work is not as impressive as it seems. First of all, Bechtel’s initial completion date was this summer, but by early July the work was far from done. And a second expansion has been canceled.

This project is not solely the work of Bechtel. The extension was started several years ago by the Iraqi government and a Greek construction firm. When Bechtel arrived, the designs were complete, 75 percent of the extension’s parts were already delivered and paid for, and about 20 percent of the civil engineering was done.

Bechtel spent four months studying the plans, then announced they were adequate, kicked out the Greek firm, took over the project and allowed some of the original Iraqi subcontractors to continue their work. Bechtel was, according to its own paperwork, also supposed to assist in refurbishing and supplying the already existing parts of Sharkh Dijlah. The Iraqi engineers here say they instead rely on the local water department and some aid from the UN.

Progress in rehabilitating the electrical grid is also in limbo. At the Al Daura power plant, Baghdad’s main source of electricity, Bechtel’s main subcontractors, Siemens and General Electric, fled after four Russian contractors were assassinated, according to sources at the plant. Nationally, output was to have reached 6,500 megawatts per day by now but is stalled at 4,500 megawatts. Schools listed as fully rebuilt are in fact flooded with sewage and lack desks, but are often freshly painted. Health clinics listed as fixed are dilapidated, low on supplies and short on water and electricity. When I interviewed the Deputy Minister of Health, Dr. Amer Al-Khuzaie, he claimed not to even know the name of the US firm that has the contract to supply his ministry with medicine. Everywhere one looks, the reconstruction effort is marked by chaos, corruption and incompetence.

One problem is that most of the promised American financial help hasn’t materialized. Of the $24 billion in US tax money set aside to rebuild Iraq, only $5.3 billion had been allocated to specific reconstruction contracts as of late June 2004. According to a report from the White House Office of Management and Budget, of the $18.4 billion reconstruction honey-pot approved last fall only $366 million had been spent by late June–that is, invested in Iraq. Instead of creating 250,000 jobs for Iraqis, as was the original goal, at most 24,000 local workers have been hired.

Most amazing of all, the OMB report showed that not a single cent of US tax money had been spent on Iraqi healthcare, water treatment or sanitation projects–though $9 million was dithered away on administrative costs of the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority. Most of the little that has been invested in healthcare, water treatment and sanitation has come from Iraqi oil revenues, managed for most of last year by the Development Fund for Iraq, a US controlled successor to the UN-run Oil for Food program. In all, the CPA spent roughly $19 billion of Iraqi oil money–on what exactly is not quite clear.

A recent audit by the accounting firm KPMG on behalf of the International Advisory and Monitoring Board (IAMB)–a UN project to monitor the use of Iraqi oil money–found that four major CPA-awarded contracts were granted (in violation of CPA rules) without competitive bidding. For seven other contracts, which the CPA insisted were awarded via competitive bidding, there is no evidence to back up this claim.

Six other projects were improperly approved by a skeleton crew of the CPA’s Program Review Board. Contract approval required the presence of at least 70 percent of that board’s voting members, but decisions were frequently made without a quorum. The only Iraqi with voting power on the PRB attended a mere two of the board’s forty-three meetings.

In the face of this damning KPMG audit, a CPA spokesperson told the Financial Times that “extraordinary steps” had been taken to make sure “the funds were expended in the interests of the Iraqi people.” But a new report by the CPA’s inspector general reinforced KPMG’s conclusions, documenting extensive corruption and waste in the handling of Iraqi oil money by US officials and private contractors, twenty-seven of whom face criminal investigations.

What does the failure of reconstruction mean for the average Iraqi? The answer is evident in places like the village of Amar Bin Yasser, not far from where the Rustimiyah’s untreated sewage hits the Diyala River.

In a palm-frond-and-plywood kiosk by a road, Khalid Salman and his three young nephews sell lamb and mutton. The meat hangs in the shade, greasy and dotted with flies. Beside Salman and the boys are two peaceful sheep, oblivious to the fate awaiting them. Across the road is the river: a thick soup of sewage. Salman explains that since the war, he has been unable to use the river water even for his animals. Instead he has to buy water at ten dinars a liter (less than a penny) from tanker trucks that come down from Baghdad. The price is not high, but neither is Salman’s income.

“The farmers here suffer from rashes and disease,” says Salman. “To irrigate their fields they sometimes have to stand in this water up to their chests. Many children are sick with some kind of poisoning, and we all have stomach pains.” He says the pollution contaminates the local wells and has brought swarms of insects, and because there is so little electricity it is hard to keep the bugs away from the children at night with electric fans. Medical care is meager at the local clinics; there are doctors but no medicine.

His tirade is cut short as a convoy of US tanks rolls by, towed on heavy-duty flatbed trucks. From the turrets, grim-looking soldiers behind .50-caliber machine guns watch the mud huts pass below them. Salman glares at the convoy with hate in his eyes. This is resistance country, and the local base gets mortared regularly. Each tank has a nickname stenciled on its cannon barrel: Fat Bastard, Controlled Rage, Crotch Rocket, Another Tank and Chubby Cowboy.

Farther downriver the situation is the same. In the village of Azhira a woman in a black abaya with blue tattoos on her chin explains how the village is dependent on the tanker trucks and cash for its water. Her husband says all the fish are dead and that the fishermen have no work. They get only three hours of electricity and then are cut off for up to five hours at a time. It is hard to keep food fresh, and the heat only makes it worse.

Outside the village I stop and talk with a squad of GIs whose armored Humvee is tucked beneath a stand of trees along a raised dirty road. Their mission is to guard a bridge over the Diyala and keep tabs on Azhira.

“Everything’s pretty mellow,” says one of the soldiers. His comrades read magazines in the Humvee or watch the surrounding trees and houses. “Sometimes they take potshots at us from over there.” He points to the village. “But when you meet the people, they’re not all bad.” None of the GIs are aware of the water situation or the sewage problem or the real extent of the economic crisis around them. But they are not unsympathetic. “Living near a river of shit–that would definitely suck,” says one of them. “No wonder these people are pissed.”