Army Corps of Engineers Chief: Iraq Infrastructure Progress 'Maligned by News Media'

In his “Grapevine”segment on Monday night, FNC's Brit Hume picked up on how the Pentagon executive who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers lashed out at the news media, charging that on infrastructure progress made in Iraq “it's quite a heroic story maligned often by the news media." Hume relayed how “Dean Popps tells the Washington Times that when the Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Iraq, none of Baghdad's three sewage treatments worked, few towns had clean water, the 1950's era electrical system was falling part, and there were no primary health care facilities.” But now, “Popps says three years later the sewage system capacity increases by almost half a million cubic meters a day, power and water are much more widely accessible, and there are six new primary care facilities in the country with 66 more being built.” Yet, “Popps says reporters are often brought to some of the sites where this is happening, but he says positive stories rarely materialize."

Hume's item quoted from a Monday Washington Times story, “Rebuilding in Iraq tops 4,000 projects,” by Rowan Scarborough who quoted Popps, the Principal Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisitions, Logistics and Technology. An excerpt:
Not counting the deteriorating security situation, no facet of the Iraq war has received more negative press than the U.S.- and Iraqi-financed reconstruction. The Washington Times, along with other newspapers, has published a series of articles on setbacks and corruption. But, the Pentagon contends there is another storyline.

"It's quite a heroic story maligned often by the news media," Mr. Popps said during an interview in his E-Ring Pentagon office. A nearby multicolored map designates hundreds of projects started and completed, from Mosul to Basra....

Mr. Popps said it is first important to understand what the rebuilding team inherited. U.S. intelligence knew little about the actual state of Iraq's energy infrastructure and social service network. When the Army Corps of Engineers got on the ground, there was shock:

- The three regional sewage treatments plants in greater Baghdad did not work; raw waste poured into the Tigris River and downstream through villages. Sadr City, the impoverished Shi'ite slum repressed by the ruling Sunni Ba'ath Party, lacked any sewage system. "Some slam the Americans because there is sewage in Sadr City," said an incredulous Mr. Popps. "Please."

- Few towns had a central supply of clean water.

- The electrical grid suffered under 1950s technology and disrepair. Saddam Hussein starved the rest of the country of power to give the capital of 6 million about 20 hours a day.

- The country lacked any primary health care facilities; hospitals and schools were run down and lacked supplies. New hospitals had not been built in 20 years. More than half the public health centers remained closed. Of 13,000 schools, more than 10,000 needed significant renovations.

The Pentagon in 2003 summoned American firms to get reconstruction started in the absence of Iraqi ministries that could supervise and a private sector that was in shambles under Saddam's totalitarian rule.

"The ministries were jammed with people who did nothing," Mr. Popps said. "They sat around and smoked and drank tea and held 'worry beads.' It was an economy based on incompetence and corruption."

Today, the Pentagon is handing out a score sheet:

- Six new primary care facilities, with 66 more under construction; 11 hospitals renovated; more than 800 schools fixed up; more than 300 police stations and facilities and 248 border control forts.

- Added 407,000 cubic meters per day of water treatment; a new sewage-treatment system for Basra; work on Baghdad's three plants continues; oil production exceeds the 2002 level of 2 million barrels a day by 500,000.

- The Ministry of Electricity now sends power to Baghdad for four to eight hours a day, and 10 to 12 for the rest of the country. Iraqis are now free to buy consumer items such as generators, which provide some homes with power around-the-clock.

Mr. Popps said all this was accomplished despite a concerted effort by terrorists to bomb construction sites and kill workers. Thursday's kidnapping of private contractors south of Baghdad illustrates the problem. The State Department was forced to increase spending on security, up to $5 billion of the $20 billion, or risk losing more projects to saboteurs.

The Army Corps has ferried reporters to what it considers successful sites in an effort to get a few positive stories on reconstruction. But rarely do any materialize, Mr. Popps said.

"What has hurt the public perception of reconstruction is incomplete leaks to the media that there is a problem with a particular project," he said. "What is sexy to reporters is a police station that has urine in the ceiling. That's what the press prefers to talk about rather than the great successes we have made."...

Hume's item in full during the “Grapevine” segment on the November 20 Special Report with Brit Hume:
“The Assistant Secretary of the Army says the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq is comparable to the post-World War II Marshall Plan and a quote, 'heroic story maligned often by the news media.’ Dean Popps tells the Washington Times that when the Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Iraq, none of Baghdad's three sewage treatments worked, few towns had clean water, the 1950's era electrical system was falling part, and there were no primary health care facilities. Popps says three years later the sewage system capacity increases by almost half a million cubic meters a day, power and water are much more widely accessible, and there are six new primary care facilities in the country with 66 more being built. Popps says reporters are often brought to some of the sites where this is happening, but he says positive stories rarely materialize.”
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center