The United States should create a reserve force of civilian contractors to be deployed for relief and rebuilding operations as needed, the government’s independent inspector for Iraq reconstruction recommended on Wednesday.

In a report to Congress, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen also said contractors with expertise in special reconstruction areas should be prequalified, to make the contracting process more effective.

The "Lessons Learned" report, the second of three such reports on U.S. reconstruction in Iraq, found early U.S. efforts involved many government agencies with overlapping jurisdictions.

"These agencies applied a variety of approaches to similar contracting and procurement requirements, resulting in methodologies and outcomes that occasionally came into conflict," the report said.

Bowen was expected to discuss the report’s finding before a congressional panel on Wednesday morning.

The report detailed problems throughout phases of Iraq’s reconstruction and within various groups charged with leading contracting and reconstruction efforts. That included the lack of qualified personnel based in Iraq, insufficient staffing within procurement offices and heavy rotation of personnel.

For example, the Disaster Assistance Response Team, part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, included 65 people in the region, waiting to move into Iraq. But the team could not develop requirements for relief and reconstruction because it lacked information about the situation on the ground in Iraq, the report said.

"As this report reveals, the U.S. government was not systemically well-poised to provide the kind of contracting and procurement support needed at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq," the special inspector said.

The report recommended the government set up a deployable corps of contracting personnel, coordinated by the State Department as part of its civilian ready reserve corps. That group, trained in contracting standards, would "maximize contracting efficiency in a contingency environment," the special inspector said.

The U.S. government’s contracting decisions have been repeatedly criticized and previous reports have uncovered many problems with procurement.

Deteriorating security in Iraq also complicated the contracting process by increasing costs and making it difficult for contractors to travel to work sites.

Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee set to hear from the special inspector on Wednesday, said the report was "emblematic of the administration’s mismanagement of the whole reconstruction effort."

"It did not plan for the reconstruction. It was slow to get contracting teams in place. And its oversight has been so lax that billions of dollars have been wasted through mismanagement or outright fraud," Lieberman said.

But the report said contracting and procurement efforts in Iraq had "substantially improved" over the course of the reconstruction program.

© 2006 Reuters