Iraq Reconstruction Program Needs Its Own Rebuild

The U.S. government established the "CERP" fund — Commander's Emergency Response Program — to win hearts and minds in Iraq by building schools, roads and water purification facilities that the country needs. Today, almost two years later, the program is still marred by allegations of corruption and waste. Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, is leading the battle to clean up CERP. He joins host Scott Simon to talk about the progress he's made and where he'd like to see improvement.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The U.S. government established the CERP Fund - that stands for Commander's Emergency Response Program - to use money to win hearts and minds in Iraq by building schools, roads and water purification facilities that the country needs. But the program has always been subject to allegations of corruption and waste. Today, almost two years later, Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, is still battling mismanagement of reconstruction funds. Just this week, he presented his quarterly report to the U.S. Congress. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STUART BOWEN (Special Inspector General, Iraq Reconstruction Program): Scott, it's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Give us some idea where - where the money has gone.

Mr. BOWEN: Well, the money is $52 billion worth of taxpayer investment in Iraq, over half of which has been spent on security. CERP, the Commander's Emergency Response Program, has played an important role to provide brigade commanders with walking around money, if you will, to do quick projects for Iraqis across the country.

SIMON: They get to a village, they say you need - you need a water system here.

Mr. BOWEN: Exactly right. That's also part of the problem. It's driven by the demand of the moment, which has to be carefully filtered to ensure that there are no perhaps corrupt motivations behind it. Corruption is a huge problem in Iraq, as we've repeatedly reported. However, CERP has improved over time, but there are some challenges still there as our audits unfold - namely the proper use of CERP. Urgent humanitarian is not met in our view by building a caravan hotel for contractors or painting a mural on a blast wall or buying an ad in the "Financial Times."

SIMON: We have done stories on this network, and we're proud of them, about mistakes, allegations in the program - good hard-nosed reporting - did a piece about this prison that was built...

Mr. BOWEN: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...for I think $45 million, referred to as the Whale.

Mr. BOWEN: Yes.

SIMON: It is apparently not in use...

Mr. BOWEN: That's right.

SIMON: ...as anything at the moment. To the credit of the program, when we do stories like that, do we sometimes miss hundreds of thousands of projects that are in everyday use?

Mr. BOWEN: I think so, and so do I. It's impossible to cover all the issues at play in Iraq. Fifty-two billion - the largest foreign aid program in U.S. history, the largest relief and reconstruction ever pursued for a single country, and just pretty much all spent in a five-year span.

At the outset, 2003, the United States anticipated spending perhaps two billion. You know, 25 times that later, there's still a lot to be done in Iraq.

SIMON: I'm curious about this, Mr. Bowen. What do you say to Americans who might say to you, look, we owe a lot to Iraq, one way or another, but we've given a lot and we have our own problems here, and it's just time to tell them - you've got oil, stand on your own two feet.

Mr. BOWEN: I say to them, absolutely right. The Iraqi income is going up because the oil prices is going up, set records this quarter in oil production. It is the third wealthiest oil and gas country in the world - perhaps higher, if the Iraqis' own estimates are true. And with the recent round of oil contract bidding and the next round that's coming up in four weeks, you're going to see significant increases in their economic capacity, which means perhaps our aid ought to go to countries more in need.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. So you wouldn't be opposed to that.

Mr. BOWEN: I think it's a wise public policy.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, how is the transfer of so much authority from U.S. forces and U.S. sources to Iraqis going, as a generalization?

Mr. BOWEN: This is a very difficult challenge on both the security and non-security front. The support that the Iraqis are giving to the capacity-building efforts we are trying to provide has been limited. And that means they're not ready to operate independently, but they're going to have to learn that on their own. I think the United States has invested maximally in this area.

On the non-construction front, the non-military front, again, that's on the Iraqi ledger now and they're going to have to find a way to piece their infrastructure together better and build their employment and economy.

SIMON: Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BOWEN: Scott, it's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: A soldier's sacrifice belongs to an entire family. And next week we'll air a series of stories focused on the impact of war on people thousands of miles from the battlefield - parents, spouses and children as they cope. You can read more about the series at NPR.org/soapbox.

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