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Quick school fixes won few Iraqi hearts

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The US government lists renovations done on 2,356 Iraqi schools in a $70 million effort as one of its major accomplishments. The idea behind it was to meet a pressing Iraqi need and quickly win goodwill from a wide swath of the population.

But many Iraqis, like Mustafa Ibrahim al-Jubari, weren't won over. Mr. Jubari is the deputy principal of the Zam Zam elementary school (named after a sacred freshwater well in Mecca). His two-story building in northern Baghdad smells far from fresh. Jubari points to a four-month-old paint job already peeling, a roof that was caulked but leaks, and new porcelain toilet bowls installed on top of backed-up sewage lines. "You're lucky that school has been out for a few weeks,'' he says. "When they're here, the whole place stinks."

Though a tiny piece of the more than $18.6 billion committed by the US to Iraq, the money spent on Iraqi schools, and their poor state, ties together much that's gone wrong here, past and present, as the June 30 handover approaches. Critics of US-led reconstruction efforts say it has been slow to come, poorly targeted, and occasionally littered with waste.

To be sure, the real problems at Zam Zam, built in the early 1960s, aren't America's fault. Like almost every other piece of domestic infrastructure, the school suffered decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein, who diverted resources to fight two destructive foreign wars and to cronies to shore up his regime.

Bechtel Corp., which oversaw the work at Zam Zam and about 1,300 other schools, points out that its contract, part of a larger $1 billion contract to fix Iraqi infrastructure, didn't include money for long-term problems like sewage.

Yet amid a construction program focused on the long-term, the schools program was one of the few designed to touch many Iraqi lives quickly. Education under Mr. Hussein was undermined by indoctrination, so it was a perfect symbol of the US program to transform Iraq's present and future. But few Iraqis ended up appreciating the effort. "My kids are still on rickety desks in a broken-down school,'' says Uday Jabbar Mahmoud, the father of three who works as a security guard in Baghdad. "We're not seeing any reconstruction. We hear that millions have been spent, but nothing we can touch."

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