Review: Learning From Iraq – A Final Report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction


Contributed by Donnchadh Mac an Ghoill

sigir_bowenThe first thing that strikes one about this 171 page report is its title: Learning from Iraq. What is being learned and for what purpose?  Surely the U.S. has no intention of doing all this again to another country? We soon learn that is precisely the intention. The report was released on March of 2013, and its author, Inspector General Stuart W. Bowen, along with the signatories of its Forward, General David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker make no secret of the fact that the value they see in this report is the lessons learned from Iraq “as we seek to improve the way the United States plans, executes and oversees Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations”–reconstruction that we may assume will be made necessary by future U.S. bombing.

For the rest of us, the value of this report comes from the fact that Inspector General Bowen is clearly a very diligent and conscientious civil servant, who does not try to conceal the colossal waste and gross errors that have characterized the U,S occupation and reconstruction effort in Iraq. There is also great value in that Bowen uses the language of U.S. domination in an entirely unselfconscious manner, thus giving us a deep insight into the psychology of the occupation forces. For example, Bowen describes the Iraqis as the “recipients” of the reconstruction program, the U.S. Army as the “executors” and the U.S, Congress as the “providers.” This despite the fact that Iraq itself provided more than twice as much money for the reconstruction as the U.S. did, and it can reasonably be argued that U.S. companies were the big recipients of the whole program. It will be no news to Iraqi readers that the Iraqi provision of funds was not done on a voluntary basis. Iraqi state assets were simply expropriated and moved to a bank vault in New York, and money from Iraqi oil sales was sent to various U.S. Army officers for use in U.S. construction plans–without reference to the Iraqis themselves. As the report makes clear, that was a recipe for disaster.

The office of the Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) was founded nine years ago, when the U.S. Congress recognized that some instrument of oversight was needed for the vast sums of money being spent on the construction of a new Iraqi state.  The U.S. Congress itself set aside $60 billion for the project, $55 billion of which had already been spent by 2013. Already, in 2004, $3 billion of the reconstruction money had been redesignated away from reconstruction and to fighting a rapidly evolving insurgency. This was a pattern that was to be repeated many times, so that it is often not easy to tell how much of the money was really used for reconstruction, and how much simply used to keep the U.S. Army in the field. It would be no exaggeration to say that the people of Iraq were soon paying for their own occupation, and seeing very little in the line of genuine reconstruction. Bowen writes that the work of his office was to “answer a deceptively simple question: what happened to the billions of dollars expended to re-build that country?”  A series of nine SIGIR “Lessons Learned” reports have been issued, culminating in this tenth and “Final Report,” in an attempt to answer that question.

One gets the impression that Bowen and his team faced an impossible task from the very start. With $55 billion of U.S. taxpayers money and $145 billion of Iraqi money being spent, and with US companies like Halliburton alone in receipt of up to $30 billion of the money, it’s clear that powerful vested interests would see to it that the work of SIGIR would have limited effect. Of that huge sum, SIGIR audits only resulted in $645 million in actual savings, “including $508.66 million on the DynCorp police-training contract as a result of renegotiate price proposals, rejected invoices, refunds from the contractor, and operational savings.”  When auditing a contract awarded to Saudi company, Anham, Bowen’s team found overcharging on a massive scale.  For example, $900 was charged for a single control switch, valued at $7.05 – a 12,666% mark-up. Such overcharging was not an exception in the reconstruction of Iraq, but the rule.  Bowen memorably refers to Iraq during this period as a “Free Fraud Zone.” Though Bowen’s team did not get very much of the money back, it did manage to secure 82 convictions, including the conviction of U.S. Army Major John Cockerham, and a group of conspirators he had built around him, for the theft of nearly seventy million dollars. Robert Stein, a previously convicted felon, was handed $58 million in cash to distribute among contractors in Iraq. The sight of over a hundred cardboard boxes filled with $100 dollar notes, sitting in his warehouse, seems to have had a profound effect on his mind. Soon he had set up a criminal operation involving bribery, kickbacks, and money laundering–including the laundering of $2 million stolen from a U.S. Army vault. He received nine years in prison. These are huge sums in any normal context, but, in the context of Iraq, its hard not to come to the conclusion that it was only the little guys who ever faced a judge.

One of the most bizarre incidents described was the loading of over $10 billion in $100 notes, in shrink-wrapped bundles, onto cargo planes in New York, then sent to Iraq during 2003 and 2004. Nobody is quite sure what happened to all this cash.  It’s likely that some of it was spent bribing insurgents not to attack U.S. soldiers, some of it was used to buy the support of the local populations around army bases –or at least their ambivalence.  Some was used to pay mercenaries and a great deal of it was simply stolen.

One of the most interesting parts of this highly interesting and well-written report is the section where Iraqi politicians are interviewed, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The verdict on the US reconstruction is generally damning.  All regret the lack of Iraqi input into the choice of reconstruction projects, and, significantly, even Shia politicians regret the Year Zero policy of the US occupation forces, where the old Iraqi state was simply abolished tout court. It takes a nation generations to build up a competent state bureaucratic class. Tens of thousands of highly competent and conscientious Iraqi civil servants, police officers and soldiers were simply dismissed from their posts, without compensation or pension rights. Apart from the massive resentment such a scorched earth policy provoked, it left Iraq completely without the ability to rule itself as a sovereign nation. This task was then put in the hands of U.S. Army officers, with the results already touched on. The feelings of the Iraqi politicians is best summed up in the words of Minister Adnan al-Asadi: “You can fly a helicopter around Baghdad or other cities, but you cannot point a finger at a single project that was built and completed by the United States.” Many politicians regarded the current culture of political corruption as having its origin in the chaos of the U.S. occupation and reconstruction. Particular emphasis was put on the fact that over $5 billion has been spent on Iraq’s electricity service, and yet, almost nobody has a regular supply.

Looking to the future, Bowen recognizes that the presence of such a massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad, with over 10,000 staff, has a distorting effect on a fragile Iraqi democracy.  He looks forward to the size of the embassy being reduced to more usual levels over time, and relations between Iraq and the U.S. becoming more a relation of equals.


Donnchadh Mac an Ghoill was born in Mayo, in the West of Ireland, in 1964, and he has also lived in Berlin and London. He has a degree in Early and Modern Irish from Trinity College Dublin and a Higher Diploma in Psychoanalysis. He usually writes in Irish, and has written three plays in Irish, one of which won an award two years ago. With other families he established the Sóivéid James Connolly, which among other things runs Irish classes, bagpipe classes, a weekly comedy club, home brewing and a community garden, as well as the website . They have also set up the Pairtí Cummanach na Poblachta (Communist Party of the Irish Republic) referring to the all-Ireland Republic declared in 1916. One of the main reasons for establishing the party was to develop contacts with anti-imperialists around the world, and give Irish people the chance to be part of a Marxist and anti-imperialist organisation.