IRAQ: Corruption Plagues School Repairs

In many cases, contractors charge twice for work done, a member of the Sadr City Advisory Council said. Schools cost about $10,000 to fix up, according to previous information from the Ministry of Education. That price tag can include paint, new tile and

Baghdad, Iraq -- "Haramia," or "thieves," is the new name given to local contractors who receive money to fix up schools, then allegedly do such a poor job that they can put most of the money in their pockets, those on a Sadr City advisory committee say. 

Ministry of Education officials acknowledge problems but say they're doing everything they can to combat them.

In one case, contractors actually stole light fixtures from the school instead of painting, replacing doors, or doing anything else called for in fix-up plans, said a school teacher who declined to be named. At another school, a man who would identify himself only as Mohammed said contractors threatened him and the principal with death if they did not sign a paper saying shoddy work had been done adequately.

In the poor Baghdad suburb, school repair projects were part of the numerous reconstruction contracts handed out after fighting between Mehdi Army forces and U.S. and Iraq troops ended last fall. Now, at least the school contracts have been put on hold, said Omran Haidar, 29, a member of the Sadr City Advisory Council, which functions as a city council.

"The advisory council told the Ministry of Education to stop because there is no transparency," Haidar said. "Then they tried to suspend the authority of our council, so we withdrew."

Money to fix up the Sadr City schools comes from several places, including a pot of more than $90 million from the U.S. Program and Contract office in Iraq, which oversees $18.4 billion approved by the U.S. Congress in November 2003 for reconstruction. U.S. Army discretionary funds also are often spent on small reconstruction projects. The United States Agency for International Development also works on school fix-up projects.

In many cases, contractors charge twice for work done, Haidar said. Schools cost about $10,000 to fix up, according to previous information from the Ministry of Education. That price tag can include paint, new tile and plumbing work.

Minister of Education Sami al-Mudhaffar says he knows there are problems. His adviser Hasanein Muellah says part of the problem actually has to do with advisory board members wanting to do the fix-up work and get the money themselves.

"I can't give the work to anybody; I have to bid it out legally with announcements," Muellah said. "For the last three schools in Sadr City, we did a competition."

Those on the Sadr City board complain that they have made lists of schools that desperately need help, but contractors work on schools that have already been renovated. Open sewage lines need to be covered at schools on the advisory board list, but the ministry of education instead has painted the same building more than once, said Abbas Ali, a member of the advisory council.

"For example, a high school for girls was rehabilitated two times, so this is the third time they want to do the work," Ali said. "You see the corruption. We rejected this work."

Muellah says a group of Ministry of Education workers visited all of the schools before deciding which ones were most needy. He agrees that one school was fixed more than once, but points out that one time the principal's office got fixed up, the second time, workers installed a sewer pipe so that toilets could be built inside the school so students wouldn't have to use a latrine outside anymore.

"I am not responsible for their complaints. I can only be responsible for our work," Muellah said.

Both sides have folders of documents backing up their claims. There appears to be only vague proof of current wrongdoing -- a principal sending a note to the advisory council saying he was threatened for not signing a contractor's work order, for example

But similar complaints have been made almost since U.S.-led forces came into Iraq.

The Bechtel Corp. spent millions of dollars to fix up more than 1,200 schools in 2003 as part of a $680 million contract it received before the war to also fix electrical grids and water ports. Contractors and sub-contractors siphoned off money while doing little more than paint schools without much damage, according to Western media reports.

Another round of more than $90 million went to U.S.-based Environmental Chemical Corporation Inc. (also known as ECC International) in the south and to Washington Group International in the north to fix up more of Iraq's estimated 10,000 schools.

Mohammed al-Amir, who worked for the U.S. Project and Contracting Office in charge of southern schools, took pictures to document how floors were ripped up and re-installed in one case. In another case, another coat of paint was added to a freshly painted school.

In another case, contractors didn't do any work other than take pictures of a previously fixed-up school, al-Amir said, pointing in a picture to an Arabic sign over the school's front door with the wrong name.

"You just can't believe what they did," al-Amir said. "They put so much money in their pockets."

When the ECC International was given written questions by Internet about the schools, they said they were aware of the problems and would fix them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must sign off on the school work, is checking on the status of the schools in question, according to Ross Adkins, a civilian spokesman for the group.

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