After U.S. and allied warplanes destroyed a key bridge carrying 15 oil and gas pipelines in northern Iraq during the 2003 conflict there, officials in Washington and Baghdad made its postwar reconstruction a top priority. But instead of spending two months to rebuild the span over the Tigris River at an estimated cost of $5 million, they decided for security reasons to bury the pipelines beneath it, at an estimated cost more than five times greater.
What ultimately happened there tells the story -- in a microcosm -- of a substantial chunk of the massive nine-year U.S. effort to reconstruct Iraq, the second-largest such endeavor in history (only the U.S. investment in Afghanistan has been larger).
Studies conducted before the digging of the new pipelines started showed that the soil was too sandy, but neither the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the effort nor the main contractor at the site, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), heeded the warning. As a result, "tens of millions of dollars [were] wasted on churning sand" without making any headway, as Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart W. Bowen Jr., described it in his recently published final report on the U.S. occupation.
By the time the digging effort was halted, and the old bridge and piping repaired -- more than three years later -- the bill had reached more than $100 million. "Because of the nature of the original contract, the government was unable to recover any of the money wasted on this project," Bowen said. More than $1.5 billion in oil revenues may have been lost as a result of the delays. KBR did not respond to a request for comment.