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Originally published Monday, July 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Project gone bad: $40M later, prison in Iraq still empty

In the flatlands north of Baghdad sits a prison with no prisoners. It holds something else: a chronicle of U.S. government waste, misguided planning...

The Associated Press

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reports:

Prison project

Audit of Parsons

BAGHDAD — In the flatlands north of Baghdad sits a prison with no prisoners.

It holds something else: a chronicle of U.S. government waste, misguided planning and construction shortcuts costing $40 million and stretching back to the U.S. overseers who replaced Saddam Hussein.

"It's a bit of a monument in the desert right now because it's not going to be used as a prison," said Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, whose office plans to release a report today detailing the problems at the vacant detention center in Khan Bani Saad.

The pages also add another narrative to the wider probes into the billions lost on scrubbed or substandard projects and one of the main contractors accused of failing to deliver, the Parsons construction group of Pasadena, Calif.

In the pecking order of corruption in Iraq, the dead-end prison project at Khan Bani Saad is nowhere near the biggest or most tangled.

Bowen estimated up to 20 percent "waste" -- or more than $4 billion -- from the $21 billion spent so far in the U.S.-bankrolled Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund. It's just one piece of a recovery effort that swelled beyond $112 billion in U.S., Iraqi and international contributions.

Nothing went right

The idea for the modern-style prison began with the Coalition Provisional Authority running Iraq after Saddam's fall.

On behalf of the authority, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $40 million contract in March 2004 to Parsons to design and build an 1,800-inmate lockup.

Work at the site, 12 miles northeast of Baghdad and just over the border in Diyala Province, was set to begin May 2004 and finish in November 2005.

Nothing went right from the start, the report says.

The Sunni insurgency was catching fire. The U.S. was under pressure to improve prison conditions after the abuses exposed at Abu Ghraib.

Washington's focus shifted quickly from rebuilding to just holding its ground. The prison project got started six months late and continued to fall behind, the report said.

The U.S. government pulled the plug in June 2006, citing "continued schedule slips and ... massive cost overruns."

$900 million contract

The problem at Khan Bani Saad is only one example of the millions of dollars auditors found were wasted on construction projects by Parsons, which left Iraq two years ago.

In a companion report also being released today, Bowen said the prison was part of a $900 million Parsons contract to build border posts, courts, police training centers and fire stations.

Of 53 construction projects in the massive Parson contract, only 18 were completed.

As of this spring, Parsons had been paid $333 million. More than $142 million of that was for projects that were terminated or canceled.

While the failure to complete some of the work was "understandable given the complex nature and unstable security environment in Iraq, millions of dollars" were likely wasted, the report said.

Bowen said only about 10 U.S. contracting officers and specialists were working on the $900 million contract, whereas 50 or 60 would be assigned to a comparable undertaking in the United States.

Coordinated bomb

attacks kill 24

Police say three suicide bombers and a roadside bomb struck Shiite pilgrims taking part in a massive religious procession in Baghdad, killing at least 24 people and wounding 72.

Police say the attacks occurred Monday in quick succession as tens of thousands of Shiite worshippers streamed toward a shrine in northern Baghdad.

The annual pilgrimage marks the death of an eighth-century saint and ends on Tuesday.

Police said they believed the suicide bombers were women.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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