BAGHDAD - U.S. auditors have concluded that more than $200 million was wasted on a program to train Iraqi police that Baghdad says is neither needed nor wanted.
The Police Development Program- which was drawn up to be the single largest State Department program in the world - was envisioned as a five-year, multibillion-dollar push to train security forces after the U.S. military left last December. But Iraqi political leaders, anxious to keep their distance from the Americans, were unenthusiastic.
A report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, released Monday, found that the American Embassy in Baghdad never got a written commitment from Iraq to participate. Now, facing what the report called Baghdad's "disinterest" in the project, the embassy is gutting what was supposed to be the centerpiece of ongoing U.S. training efforts in Iraq.
According to the report, the embassy plans to turn over the $108 million Baghdad Police College Annex to Iraqis by the end of the year and will stop training at a $98 million site at the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Basra. Additionally, the number of advisers has been cut by nearly 90 percent - from 350 to 36.
"A major lesson learned from Iraq is that host country buy-in to proposed programs is essential to the long-term success of relief and reconstruction activities. The PDP experience powerfully underscores that point," auditors wrote in a 41-page summary of their inspection. An advance copy was provided to The Associated Press.
Auditors noted that it "has clearly been difficult" for American diplomats to secure a solid commitment from Iraq's government to participate in the training program. Still, the report concluded, "the decision to embark on a major program absent Iraqi buy-in has been costly" and resulted in "a de facto waste."
The findings call into question funding needs at the largest U.S. embassy in the world, as the Obama administration prepares its new spending plan for the 2013 fiscal year that begins Oct 1. While auditors said it's unknown how much the embassy in Baghdad is requesting, additional money for the police program "may not be needed."
Despite years and billions of dollars of training, Iraq's police force remains a vulnerable target for militants. On Sunday, seven police were killed and nine more wounded in bombings and shootings near the former al-Qaida stronghold of Fallujah, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad. It appeared to be the latest strike by the Sunni insurgency as it seeks to reclaim areas where U.S. troops ousted them.
In a July 26 letter responding to a draft of the report, acting Assistant Secretary of State Carol Z. Perez said the embassy will need an unspecified amount of additional funding this year to continue training Iraqi police into 2013. She disputed the finding that the funds have been wasted, noting Iraqis will continue to use the Baghdad Police College Annex for training.
Moreover, Perez said, the embassy has been assured by Principal Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi that Iraq is committed to a streamlined version of the training program. U.S. diplomats will continue working with top security officials, she said, "to ensure that our police assistance efforts meet mutual goals and objectives and to sustain senior-level Iraqi commitment to the program."
The auditors, however, said those assurances fall far short of a written commitment, and quoted al-Asadi as telling U.S. inspectors that the police training program is "useless."
Al-Asadi "also indicated that Iraqi police officers had expressed their opinion that the training received to date was not beneficial," the audit said.
Al-Asadi could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday and his spokesman declined to discuss the report. But a key member of parliament's security oversight committee said that U.S. training programs are no longer needed by Iraqi police.
"The Iraqi federal police went through many training courses, in many fields, and that resulted in having many experts and specialist academies," Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili said. "At this point, we don't need the American expertise, because of the expertise we have now."
Auditors said the U.S. has spent about $8 billion to train and equip Iraqi police since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. At that time, there were about 58,000 police in Iraq. The report said that number had grown to 412,000 by 2010. Other estimates put the size of Iraq's federal, local and border police force at 650,000.
The training was led by the American military until last October, just six weeks before U.S. troops left Iraq for good. The embassy took over the program, but with what Monday's report described as "mixed results."
Iraq's self-rule northern Kurdish region has embraced the program and, as a result, half of the remaining 36 U.S. advisers assigned to police training will be based in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, 350 kilometers (215 miles) north of Baghdad.
But restive politics in the central government, whose factions are reluctant to be seen as dependent on American help, have prompted officials to keep the U.S. trainers at arms' length. Some Iraqi officers have been told to skip the police training sessions, the audit said, citing one who blamed "lukewarm relations between the Americans and Iraqis (that) has created some distance between them."
Stephanie Sanok, who was at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2009 to 2010 and is an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the police training program "doomed from the beginning" because American officials never made sure Iraqis supported it.
"The U.S. government has a tendency to go ahead with programs that it has decreed are in the host country's best interests," Sanok said. "This was such an expensive program, and there was plenty of time to get the Iraqi government to help shape it in such a way that they could eventually take it over. But we never got that buy-in."