15% of all Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes — and almost none have returned, so far.

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The violence in Iraq continues daily.  This month, the country suffered its single deadliest attack of the year, a suicide truck bombing in Taza, Iraq, that killed 80 people, wounded more than 200, and destroyed at least 50 buildings. As usual, these were innocent civilians going to market, attending mosque and attempting to live normal lives.

This partially explains the stunning statistic that out of 2.7 million Iraqis who have been “internally displaced” during the war — kicked out of their homes by ethnic violence and intimidation, or forced to leave due to destruction of their plumbing, electricity and roads — a tiny fraction, fewer than 1%, have returned home, according to the respected Brookings Iraq Index (http://www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/iraq/index.pdf ).   IN addition,  another two million Iraqis (mostly middle class professionals who had enough money to get out) fled the country entirely. Fewer than 70,000 of these refugees have returned home.  The vast majority are seeking permanent asylum in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and other countries.

In total, this means that over 15% of the Iraqi population has been forced to flee their homes.  And despite considerable financial incentives from the Iraqi government for them to return, the overwhelming majority have decided that they have a better chance of a decent life if they stay where they are.

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/06/21/Death-toll-hits-80-in-Iraq-truck-bombing/UPI-33981245624015/

WARTIME CONTRACTING COMMISSION FINDS WASTE, ABUSE

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Panel finds lax oversight of wartime contracting

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Defense Department has failed to provide adequate oversight over tens of billions of dollars in contracts to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, says a new report by an independent commission investigating waste and fraud in wartime spending.

U.S. reliance on private sector employees has grown to “unprecedented proportions,” yet the government has no central database of who all these contractors are, what they do or how much they’re paid, the bipartisan commission found.

In its first report to Congress, the Wartime Contracting Commission presents a bleak assessment of how taxpayer dollars have been spent since 2001. The 111-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, documents poor management, weak oversight, and a failure to learn from past mistakes as recurring themes in wartime contracting.

The commission’s report is scheduled to be made public Wednesday at a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform’s national security subcommittee.

One example of wasted money cited by the commission involves construction of a $30 million dining facility at a U.S. base in Iraq scheduled to be completed Dec. 25. The decision to build it was based on bad planning and botched paperwork. Yet the project is too far along to stop, making the mess hall a future monument to the waste and inefficiency plaguing the war effort.

The commission, established by Congress last year, says more than 240,000 private sector employees are supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands more work for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

In Iraq, the panel worries that as U.S. troops depart in larger numbers, too few government eyes will be on the contractors left to oversee the closing of hundreds of bases and disposal of mountains of federal property.

At Rustamiyah, a seven-acre forward operating base turned over to the Iraqis in March, the military population plunged from 1,490 to 62 in just three months. During the same period, the contractor population dropped from 928 to 338, leaving more than five contractors for every service member.

In Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama has ordered a large increase of U.S. troops, existing bases will have to expand and new ones will be built — without proper oversight unless the Pentagon rapidly changes course.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to reduce the military’s reliance on contractors and hire more government employees and acquisition staff. These steps will begin a badly needed overhaul of the military’s approach to contract management, the commission says.

One commander in Afghanistan told the commission he had no idea how many contractors were on and off his base on a daily basis. Another officer said he had property all over his installation but didn’t know who owned it or what kind of shape it was in.

There are questionable construction projects in Afghanistan, too. The commission visited the New Kabul Compound, a building intended to serve as headquarters for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But members saw cracks in the structure, broken and leaking pipes, sinking sidewalks and other defects.

“The Army should not have accepted a building in such condition,” the report says.

The commission cites concerns with a massive support contract known as “LOGCAP” that provides troops with essential services, including housing, meals, mail delivery and laundry.

Despite the huge size and importance of the contract, the main program office managing the work for both Afghanistan and Iraq has only 13 government employees. For administrative help, it relies on a contractor.

KBR Inc., the primary LOGCAP contractor in Iraq, has been paid nearly $32 billion since 2001. The commission says billions of dollars of that amount ended up wasted due to poorly defined work orders, inadequate oversight and contractor inefficiencies.

In one example, defense auditors challenged KBR after it billed the government for $100 million in costs for private security even though the contract prohibited the use of for-hire guards.

KBR has defended its performance and criticized the commission for making “biased” statements against the company.

“As we look back on what we’ve done, we’re real proud of being able to go into a war theater like that as a private contractor and support 200,000 troops,” William P. Utt, chairman of the Houston-based KBR, said in May in an interview with AP reporters and editors.

KBR is also linked to the dining hall construction snafu, although the commission faults the military’s planning and not the contractor. With American forces scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, the U.S. will use the new facility for two years at most.

In July 2008, the Army said a new dining facility was badly needed at the Camp Delta forward operating base because the existing one was too small, had a saggy ceiling, poor lighting and an unsanitary wooden floor.

KBR was awarded a contract in September. Work began in late October as American and Iraqi officials negotiated the agreement setting the dates for the U.S. troop withdrawal.

But during an April visit to Camp Delta, the commission learned that the existing mess hall had just been renovated. The $3.36 million job was done by KBR and completed in June 2008. Commission staff toured the renovated hall “without seeing or hearing of any problems or shortfalls,” the report says.

The decision to push ahead with the new hall was based on paperwork that was never updated and a failure to review the need for the project after the security agreement was signed. Most of the materials have been ordered and construction is well under way. That means canceling the project would save little money because KBR would have a legitimate claim for payment based on the investment it has already made.

Violence rises in Iraq every month in 2009

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Unfortunately, violence in Iraq has been rising for the past 3 months.  In Baghdad alone, more than 200 people have been killed in attacks so far in April, compared with 99 last month and 46 in February.  This may be a sign that Iraq’s security gains are beginning to reverse to the levels prior to the US surge. (There were 200 civilian deaths in March 2008).  Large-scale bombings targeting civilians are once again rising, and there is widespread concern among Iraqis that the violence may quickly spread as the U.S. begins to withdraw.

Nationwide, political violence has killed at least 451 people in April, up from 335 in March, 288 in February, and 242 in January, according to the Associated Press tally.

So far, US officials have maintained that the rising violence will not affect plans for US withdrawal of troops. However, the violence will likely translate into higher costs for the US taxpayer — because we will need to provide even more continuing assistance to the struggling Iraqi security forces and police.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and Iraq expert with the Brookings Institution, called the rise in violence “significant” in an interview with McClatchy News.  “There almost surely won’t be a complete reversal” in the progress that’s been made”, he wrote. “But there could be an end to the progress and even a new, somewhat higher level of ongoing violence.”

The ongoing violence in Iraq is in itself another cost of the war, borne by Iraqi civilians.

After months of delays, allegations of fraud, and labor disputes, the gigantic new US embassy in Iraq finally opened on January 5, 2009. The mammoth structure covers 104 acres — the size of 80 football fields — and has been called “a monster of a modern fortress”, “the US castle of Babylon” and “the imperial mother ship dropping into Baghdad”. Surrounded by concrete walls topped with razor wires, the embassy is in many ways symbolic of the US misadventure in Iraq.

Yet again, the US has spent an excessive amount of money — completely disproportionate to our diplomatic needs in the rest of the world. The new Baghdad embassy cost $732 million to construct , and it will cost the US taxpayers $1.2 billion per year to operate. It will house a full-time staff of 1200 Americans plus two thousand or more contractors. This is the biggest and most expensive US embassy in the world. (The second largest US embassy is now being built in Beijing, China, for a cost of $434 million –and it is considerably smaller than the one in Baghdad).

A ceremony to celebrate the opening of the new US embassy was held the day after a suicide bomber killed 40 people at a Shia shrine just 4 miles north of the embassy’s walls.

“Adding up the damages” by Bob Herbert

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With President Bush leaving office next week, there is a natural tendency in the media to soften some of the criticism directed toward his policies.  But many of the Bush era decisions, including the decisions to invade Iraq,  to finance the entire war by borrowing, and to  shortchange  veterans when they returned — were serious mistakes that merit continued  attention.   Bob Herbert of the New York Times recently wrote an excellent column making this point.

Does anyone know where George W. Bush is?

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

You don’t hear much from him anymore. The last image most of us remember is of the president ducking a pair of size 10s that were hurled at him in Baghdad.

We’re still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel is thrashing the Palestinians in Gaza. And the U.S. economy is about as vibrant as the 0-16 Detroit Lions.

But hardly a peep have we heard from George, the 43rd.

When Mr. Bush officially takes his leave in three weeks (in reality, he checked out long ago), most Americans will be content to sigh good riddance. I disagree. I don’t think he should be allowed to slip quietly out of town. There should be a great hue and cry — a loud, collective angry howl, demonstrations with signs and bullhorns and fiery speeches — over the damage he’s done to this country.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/30/opinion/30herbert.html

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