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$1.9M in computers for kids go missing in Iraq

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A vendor stacks blocks of ice in Baghdad Friday. Many of the poor in Iraq are without electricity.

A vendor stacks blocks of ice in Baghdad Friday. Many of the poor in Iraq are without electricity.

Associated Press

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military is demanding to know what happened to $1.9 million worth of computers purchased by American taxpayers and intended for Iraqi schoolchildren that have instead been auctioned off by Iraqi officials for less than $50,000, the military said Friday.

The U.S. press release was a rare public admission by the military of the loss of American taxpayer money in Iraq and an equally rare criticism of Iraqi officials with whom the Americans are trying to partner as the military hands over more and more responsibility and withdraws troops from the country.

A shipment of computers intended for schoolchildren in the central Babil province was found to have been auctioned on Aug. 16 for $45,700 — before the computers could be sent to the province, the U.S. military said.

The computers were auctioned off by a senior Iraqi official at the southern port of Umm Qasr, the statement said.

"United States Division-South Commander Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks called for an immediate investigation into the actions of the Umm Qasr official to determine why computers destined for children to facilitate their education were approved for auction," it read.

The port director, Talib Bayesh, told The Associated Press that the equipment had been sitting in the port for more than 90 days and that, according to the law, any items sitting in the port for more than three months without being claimed could be confiscated by the port and sold at public auction.

"Thus we sold the shipment by auction for only $45,000," he said.

The loss of the computers highlights what have been two flashpoints of controversy during the Iraq war: the accountability of American money and the widespread corruption that many say is one of the biggest challenges to Iraq's future.

Meanwhile, an aide to Iraq's top Shiite cleric said Iraqi lawmakers should use their salaries to buy ice for the poor who are suffering through a miserably hot summer without electricity.

The comments by Ahmed al-Safi — an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure with Iraq's Shiite majority — were a stab at both deadlocked Iraqi legislators and the country's latest power crisis.

Iraq's scorching summers have been made acutely difficult this year by widespread power outages that have pushed Iraqis, frustrated with their government's inability to provide basic services, out into the streets to protest.

Iraqis who do not have refrigerators — or don't have electricity to keep them running — use ice to keep food cold and in makeshift air conditioning units used by people who don't have proper ACs.

The remark was a not-so-subtle dig at Iraqi lawmakers who have bickered for months since the March 7 election over the formation of a new government but have only met once since the election and have failed to agree on who should lead the country.

Al-Safi said during a sermon in the holy city of Karbala that since lawmakers are not working, they should donate their earnings to buy ice for poor people.

"They can help in this situation of high temperature and the flames of summer in the shadow of the electricity crisis," al-Safi said. "The lawmaker brothers can make an announcement saying that during this period of time they did not do any actual work and that they wish to donate money to provide ice for the poor people."