First lady's hospital project is in trouble

Published July 29, 2006

BAGHDAD - Construction of a children's hospital championed by first lady Laura Bush has been put on hold after it fell behind schedule and went over budget, one of dozens of halted or delayed U.S. health projects, Iraqi health officials said Friday.

The high-tech, two-story children's hospital in Basra was intended to provide state-of-the-art care in Iraq's second-largest city. The first lady and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke highly of the project and lobbied Congress for the money.

But U.S. officials dropped contractor Bechtel Corp. from the project after it missed deadlines and ran up big cost overruns, said Dr. Chasib Latif Ali, executive director of the Health Ministry. Bechtel Corp. blamed the problem on Iraq's security crisis.

An audit of the Basra hospital released late Friday by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction faulted the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was running the project, for failing to identify the increased hospital costs earlier.

In a response, Joseph Saloom, the director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, said USAID is working on new reporting systems. Efforts to contact Baghdad-based officials of USAID were unsuccessful.

Ali said the Basra hospital was just one example of health projects that the United States had promised but failed to deliver.

He said that, of nearly 180 medical facilities promised by the United States, contracts were awarded for 142. Only six have been completed and turned over to the Iraqis and those "are not even fully complete."

Bechtel spokesman Drew Slaton said the company's involvement in the hospital project will end Aug. 31 because costs had soared well beyond a $50-million cap.

Bechtel had projected a July 2007 completion date. Now, the company said it has serious doubts whether anyone will be able to finish the job.

Ali said the United States will be shifting $22-million from the oil sector reconstruction fund to cover the shortfall, while Project HOPE will try to raise $30-million. The government will ask other donor countries to chip in, said a Health Ministry spokesman, Kadhim Radi Hassan.