I often recall a meeting in October 2003 in Baghdad with an Iraqi engineer who had a master’s degree from Ball State University and loved America. He wanted to talk to me about corruption in reconstruction projects in Iraq.

Hamid spoke with anger of seeing U.S. officials on the bases pay cash to fly-by-night Iraqi agents to cart away new vehicles and spare parts – along with generators – that had been left behind by Saddam’s army. The Iraqis then sold the valuable equipment in Syria and Jordan and paid kickbacks to the U.S. officials. “You are helping criminals,” he complained, “and wasting your money and ours.”

I never had the opportunity to investigate Hamid’s accusations. He was murdered by Sunni insurgents for working with Americans. Now the sad tale of corruption and wasted billions in America’s Iraq reconstruction program for Iraq has been laid bare in a spate of new books and by the U.S. inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” details the incredible lack of planning for the postwar, in which the Pentagon team tasked with running Iraqi reconstruction met together for the first time only a few weeks before the invasion.

To understand what these Pentagon civilians wrought, read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” about the Bush team’s decision to send “the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest” to rebuild Iraq.

Chandrasekaran, former Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post, describes how Republican connections were the ticket to a job in Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2003-2004, in the occupation era of the Coalition Provisional Authority. There were some competent folks inside the Green Zone, but they played second fiddle to political appointees.

More typical was James K. Haveman Jr., a 60-year-old Republican social worker and Christian anti-abortion activist, who was picked to head the Health Ministry over a physician with degrees in public health and experience in third-world disaster relief.

Haveman treated Baghdad as if it were an extension of his home state of Michigan: He pushed for more maternity hospitals instead of refurbishing Baghdad’s ill-equipped emergency rooms. He pressed for an anti-smoking campaign – and tried to limit the number of drugs distributed to hospitals, ensuring that essential medicines stayed out of stock. He was over his head.

To get the full flavor of the mismanagement of the postwar, however, you need to go to http://www.sigir.mil, and read the reports of the special inspector general in Iraq (SIGIR), Stuart W. Bowen Jr.

Hats off to Congress for creating this office to check, post facto, on the uses of more than $18 billion spent for reconstruction. Too bad no one kept tabs sooner. Bowen’s reports tell of huge cost overruns by American contractors – notably the Halliburton subsidiary known as KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root). Despite repeated criticism, KBR has been paid most of its money by the Army.

Bowen also reports that a huge number of projects awarded to large U.S. firms remain unfinished. A children’s hospital project in Basra, backed by Laura Bush, was supposed to be completed by Bechtel in 2005, but will cost up to $169 million and may never be finished. Thirteen of 14 projects undertaken by the Parsons Corp. engineering firm were found shoddy. A $75 million Parsons project for the largest police academy in Iraq was so bungled it may have to be demolished.

SIGIR’s Deputy Inspector Gen. Ginger Cruz told me the police academy’s plumbing was so grim that urine and feces dripped onto students, and on the SIGIR inspector who visited the building.

“We’re leaving behind a trail of failure,” Cruz says. “The power and oil situation isn’t better than when we came.” The problem, she says, goes beyond the security issues that have dogged the reconstruction effort.

The biggest lesson is that we should have avoided handing massive projects to big U.S. firms and focused instead on helping Iraqis to get their own systems up and running. “Instead,” she says, “a few individuals in the CPA said, “Let’s go for the big solutions’ and decided to build huge generators which run on natural gas in a country which doesn’t have natural gas.” And so on.

Instead of consulting Iraqis – as local U.S. military commanders often did – the CPA politicos “went for big super-dooper systems. We didn’t listen,” Cruz says – not to Iraqis, nor to experts from international organizations.

“Now after three years we are going back to square one,” she adds, with the money almost gone. Has anyone in the White House learned any lessons from this reconstruction debacle? Has Donald Rumsfeld?

And will anyone ever be held accountable – say, on Nov. 7 – for the mess?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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