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SEWER PROJECT 'SO FAR OFF TRACK'

A report details the utter failure of an ambitious U.S. project to win the hearts of Fallujah.

Stinking sewage runs through rutted and pocked streets in the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

It was four years and nearly $100-million ago that Americans promised to take care of the problem, in perhaps one of the most wrong-headed rebuilding projects ever attempted in Iraq.

Now the planned sewage treatment system for the city of some 400,000 people is expected to open in April at the earliest, making it more than three years late and triple the original cost for roughly one-third of the system promised, according to a report being released today by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

The investigation into what went wrong with the wastewater project reads like a catalog of failings that have become habitual in the multibillion-dollar U.S. reconstruction effort across Iraq: staggering waste, endless delays, U.S. and Iraqi incompetence in contracting and administering the job, suspected sectarian discrimination and worse-than-poor contractor performance. Intense violence overlaid it all.

The report specifically blamed unrealistic U.S. expectations from the start, repeated redesigns of the project, financial and contracting problems, and a lack of qualified contractors to draw from.

The contract was issued only three months after four private security contractors were savagely beaten and burned in Fallujah in March 2004 while escorting a convoy. The mutilated remains of two of them were later strung from a bridge.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker asked in July for the auditor's review because the project had "gone so far off track and for so long."

Money was a tangle. Costs ballooned and officials sought to pay for the work from several different pots of reconstruction money. The Iraqi government that took over in May 2006 changed payment "requirements" for its portion of the contracted work, paying some contractors but refusing to pay others, raising suspicions the Shiite-dominated government was trying to deny help to the Sunni area.

The project to build Fallujah a treatment plant, pipelines, pumping stations and related facilities originally was to cost $32.5-million, a price now at $98-million. Started in July 2004, it was to be completed in 18 months, by January 2006, and serve the entire city.

The report by Inspector General Stuart Bowen said it now will take some 56 months in all and serve only 9,300 homes of the planned 24,400, or about 38 percent of Fallujah's residents.

It will not work at all without more contracts and more money.

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