Iraqi officials get classes to speed their spending

Iraq's government has an unusual problem as much of the world grapples with a credit crunch – it can't spend its oil riches fast enough.

The U.S. is trying to change that by training Iraqi bureaucrats struggling to emerge from a system in which nearly all decisions – from where to build a water treatment plant to which workers would do it – came from the top.

Money also was scarce for more than a decade after the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions to punish Saddam Hussein's regime for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

“Our efforts are devoted to helping the Iraqis spend their own money,” said Marc Wall, the U.S. Embassy's coordinator for economic transition in Iraq. “We've zeroed in on it in the last year or two.”

The issue came to the fore when the U.S. General Accounting Office predicted Iraq could end the year with a $79billion surplus because of oil revenues and unspent funds from past budgets.

The August report drew outrage in Congress. Lawmakers asked why Iraqis haven't spent more on reconstruction while U.S. taxpayers shell out $12 billion a month for Iraq – most for military operations.

U.S. and Iraqi officials argue the GAO figures are inflated and do not reflect Iraqi accounting procedures. They also say Iraqi spending on reconstruction is expected to rise 50 percent from 2007 to 2008.

But most agree major obstacles still include inexperienced bureaucrats, too few Iraqi contractors and a cumbersome approval process aimed at curbing corruption.

The U.S. Agency for International Development's Tatweer project is designed to train civil servants in decision-making skills to help them allocate funds and effectively deliver government services, such as electricity, water and security.

The $339 million program – paid for by U.S. taxpayers – began in July 2006 and is scheduled to finish in January 2011.

Instructors include Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese and Egyptians, native Arabic speakers who were mostly educated in the United States or other countries. Each earns about $1,500-$1,700 a month.

At one recent class – six men and six women from various Iraqi ministries – learned to diagram a decision tree.

The tool is aimed at determining possible sequences of events and their consequences to choose the best investment.

Shetha Nasser, a 46-year-old engineer at the Water Resources Ministry, asked how that would work in Iraq.

Wearing a black skirt and sequined headscarf, Nasser said she has worked with feasibility studies for nine years but never really knew how to do them.

Instead, orders came from above and had only to be implemented. Prices were fixed, aiding cost estimates.