Wednesday, March 01, 2006

US seeks funds to build prisons in Iraq

By Sue Pleming
Reuters
Tue Feb 28, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department is winding down its $20 billion reconstruction program in Iraq and the only new rebuilding money in its latest budget request is for prisons, officials said on Tuesday.

State Department Iraq coordinator James Jeffrey told reporters he was asking Congress for $100 million for prisons but no other big building projects were in the pipeline for the department's 2006 supplemental and 2007 budget requests for Iraq, which total just over $4 billion.

"This is the one bit of construction we will be doing -- $100 million for additional bed capacity for the Iraqi legal system," he said.

Eventually, the Iraqis would take more detainees now in U.S. custody and more space was needed, Jeffrey said, adding that money would also be set aside to increase the number of prosecutors and "corrections advisers."

"We have another program to continue support, protection and hardening of facilities and such for the judges who are exposing their lives," he said.

Experts on Iraq reconstruction said it was notable that the only new rebuilding money was for prisons after the public relations disaster caused by the eruption of the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison where U.S. forces abused Iraqi inmates.

"For a country like the United States that is promoting the advancement of freedom, building jails is not necessarily your best image," said Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The initial goal of the U.S. rebuilding program was to improve the lives of Iraqis by fixing the country's dilapidated infrastructure and polish America's image at the same time.

WRAPPING UP

Barton said the budget requests were in line with U.S. efforts to wrap up existing projects, many of which have not reached their targets, and to use remaining funds to help Iraqis sustain that work rather than launch new projects.

Congress has so far allocated just over $20 billion for Iraqi reconstruction in a program that put much of its early focus on giant electricity and water projects. Many of those were later scaled back and funds diverted to training Iraq's security forces to tackle the insurgency.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was grilled by Congress this month over the rebuilding program in Iraq, where water, sewer and electricity services are worse than they were before the U.S. invasion despite the billions of dollars the United States has poured into those sectors.

The Bush administration came under heavy criticism for handing out giant contracts to U.S. firms with close government ties like oil services company Halliburton, which was once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.

With the insurgency curbing rebuilding and funds being redirected to bolster Iraq's security forces, many of these contracts have not produced value for money.

James Kunder, a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the focus would now be on "capacity building" and helping Iraqis sustain these projects.

Among other budget requests was $287 million to improve security for Iraq's oil and electricity sectors, which involved burying pipelines, putting up fences and watchtowers and training guards, said Jeffrey.

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