Robert Burns

WASHINGTON: In the first tally of its kind, a federal investigative agency has calculated that at least 719 people, nearly half of them Americans, were killed working on projects to rebuild Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The toll represents an aspect of the Iraq war that is rarely brought to public attention, overshadowed by the much higher number killed in combat as well as the billions of taxpayer dollars squandered during reconstruction.

There is no confirmed total of Iraq war deaths. The U.S. military lost 4,488 in Iraq, and its allies, a little over 300. The number of Iraq deaths is thought to be more than 100,000.

Navy Cmdr. Duane G. Wolfe was among the 719. He was not fighting the insurgency, but it was fighting him.

He was among the army of lawyers, engineers, contractors and others who paid a heavy price trying to put a broken Iraq and its shattered economy back together. Their deaths were recorded among the war’s combat fatalities, but until now no one has carved out the “rebuilder” deaths as a subset of the overall casualty list.

Wolfe was killed May 25, 2009, in a roadside bombing while returning to Baghdad after inspecting a waste water treatment plant under construction near Fallujah in Iraq’s western province of Anbar.

The $100 million project endured long delays and large cost overruns, and a U.S. federal audit last fall concluded that it probably was not worth the cost. The audit said “many” people died getting it built, but it did not say how many.

Wolfe, 54, a Navy reservist, was running the Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Anbar at the time of his death; in civilian life he worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Two other U.S. civilians — Terry Barnich, 56, of the State Department, and Maged Hussein, 43, of the Army Corps — died in the same bombing.

Wolfe’s wife, Cindi, said last week that he knew the dangers of working in Iraq but made a point of not talking about security or any close calls that he might have had in violent Anbar province.

“He was careful not to worry us with information like that,” she said.

The actual number of people killed doing reconstruction work is probably much higher than 719 but cannot be reliably determined, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction said in releasing its estimate. The U.S. government has no central database for this category of war casualties, and even within the U.S. military, the records on hundreds of troop deaths are too imprecise to categorize, the report said.

“We know our number is understated,” said Glenn D. Furbish, the deputy inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

The 719 include U.S. government civilians, private contractors, military members, Iraqi civilian workers and third-country nationals. They were trainers, inspectors, auditors, advisers, interpreters and others whose mission was directly tied to the largely ad hoc reconstruction effort that began early in the war.