Bush’s Iraq plan will take ‘a very long time’

US officials tasked with helping rebuild Iraq as part of President George W. Bush’s new strategy for the war-ravaged country admitted it will take “a very long time” to finish the job.

Bush’s plan, unveiled last week, focused on a twin “surge” of fresh US troops to tamp down rampant violence and of US civilians to man an expanded network of “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs) around the country.

Funded with a billion dollars of new US money, backed up by a pledge of another 10 billion from the Iraqi government, the PRTs are supposed to coordinate and facilitate the rebuilding of economic and political institutions devastated by years of sanctions and war.

The heads of the 80-member Baghdad PRT, the country’s biggest, told reporters by videoconference that they had achieved some modest successes since starting work 10 months ago with a budget of 100 million dollars — out of some 16 billion spent on reconstruction since 2003.

These included getting some sewers repaired and helping local officials plan for the construction of 10 new schools in the city of six million.

But they stressed that the role of the PRT’s — due to grow in number from the 10 currently operating country-wide to 18 under Bush’s new plan — was not actually to rebuild Iraq.

“The Provincial Reconstruction Team is a bit of a misnomer — we are not a reconstruction agency,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ruch, deputy leader of the Baghdad unit.

“Our money is focussed on fixing the Iraqi government to be able to do this (rebuilding) work in the future,” he said from Baghdad, using as an example his team’s role of helping mediate between district, provincial and national authorities over where to place the 10 new schools.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose department runs the PRT’s even though they are joint civilian-military units, told Congress last week that she planned to deploy hundreds of civilians across the Iraqi countryside as part of the expanded economic effort.

“Success in Iraq relies on more than military efforts alone — it also requires robust political and economic progress,” she said.

But Joseph Gregoire, the civilian leader of Baghdad PRT, said that effort would require much more than the 12-24 month missions expected for the State Department teams.

“It will take a very long time to get to the point where the Iraqis will be able to meet the needs of the population independent of donor action,” he said.

One problem is the magnitude of the task in a country where electricity and oil production remain below pre-war levels nearly four year’s after the US-led invasion and despite billions of dollars already invested.

Another is security amid ongoing insurgent and sectarian violence which the UN this week said had killed more than 34,000 civilians last year and which this week in Baghdad alone took scores more lives in a series of bombings.

“The insecurity that is so characteristic of Baghdadd as we speak poses very fundamental challenges, imposes constraints on what we can do,” Gregoire said.

One of those constraints is that the Baghdad PRT does not carry out projects in the impoverished Sadr City district, militia stronghold of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

“It is not a place where we’re doing a lot of face-to-face engagement,” Ruch said.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse