Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Good news from Iraq, Part 4 

Welcome to the fourth instalment of "Good news from Iraq". If you want to check out the previous parts, you can find the links on the top of the side-bar.

Overall, the news from Iraq hasn't been too bad lately, with the transition to sovereignty well under way and decrease in fighting. However, we still hear a lot more about terrorism, prisoner abuse saga, sabotage, unvafourable opinion polls, and then some more about terrorism. Read this commentary first, on how "Media Bias Keeps 'Good' Iraq News From U.S. Public." Then read on.

IRAQI SOCIETY: The preparations for the democratic transition are on the way:

"Iraqi officials organizing elections as the U.S.-led occupation hands over power have turned to Mexico, a country with its own history of cleaning up a bad electoral system. Authorities from Mexico and five other countries are sharing their experiences with nine members of the newly appointed Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq."
"They are willing to risk anything to bring a democratic process to their country," says Carlos Valenzuela, an advisory member of Iraq's commission, about the Iraqi electoral officials. The foundations of democracy are already there at the grass-roots and at the top:

"With only days to go until Iraqi authorities assume sovereignty in their country, nearly sixty percent of the government has already been transferred to Iraqi control. The Coalition Provisional Authority reports that fifteen of Iraq's twenty-six ministries are now under Iraqi leadership. All of Iraq's provincial governments are operating independently, and about ninety percent of Iraq's municipalities have functioning city or town councils."
The democratic bug is definitely spreading around Iraq, with the news that even the Shia upriser-in-chief, Muqtada al-Sadr, will be forming a political party to contest the elections next year.

Meanwhile, some areas of Iraq are simply more fortunate than others. Take Kurdistan, for instance:

"Imagine an Iraq where GIs are greeted with cheers rather than roadside explosives, where traffic flows in orderly processions, where the calm is undisturbed by car bombs or assassinations. Such an Iraq already exists in the northern third of the country, where the local Kurdish population has governed itself for the past 13 years, tranquillity reigns and the exuberant graffiti proclaims 'we like USA'."
The whole long report is well worth reading. Elsewhere in Kurdistan, a good news/bad news situation:

"Thousands of ethnic Kurds are pushing into lands formerly held by Iraqi Arabs, forcing tens of thousands of them to flee to ramshackle refugee camps and transforming the demographic and political map of northern Iraq. The Kurds are returning to lands from which they were expelled by the armies of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors in the Baath Party, who ordered thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed and sent waves of Iraqi Arabs north to fill the area with supporters."
Down south, law and order is returning to the streets of Baghdad, literally:

"The many motorists who try to beat the traffic jams by driving the wrong way down streets, stopping in the middle of the highway or hurtling over pavements could be in for a shock. Traffic police are cracking down on the reckless driving that has thrived on the chaos and congestion that followed last year's U.S.-led invasion with new fines, car confiscations and a media campaign to restore a degree of order. 'We'll return the rule of law to the streets'," said traffic police Director-General Brigadier Jasim Tahi.
Another good news/bad news scenario, this time from the world of media:

"The BBC World Service has become the largest international radio news broadcaster in Iraq and Afghanistan following the US-led invasions of both countries, according to new figures compiled by the corporation. Radio audience figures, due to be published today, show the government-funded World Service has 3.3m listeners in Iraq including one-in-four in Baghdad, and 60 per cent of the audience in Kabul, the Afghan capital."
I guess it's better than al Jazeera. Meanwhile, the rumours of Amal al-Mudarris' demise were premature. The distinguished female broadcaster who was said to have been "tortured, hanged and had her tongue cut out and sent to her family - all for the crime of criticising Sadija Hussein, Saddam's wife" is back with her talk show on Studio Ten in Baghdad (even in this good news story, the "Guardian" can't help itself but to make a point that "[al-Mudarris'] 'death' inspired news and comment pieces and a leading article in the Times - many citing it as an example of the most egregious cruelty of Saddam", as if that was the extent on Saddam's wrong-doings). And in other radio news: "Iraq's first independent talk radio station has begun transmissions in Baghdad, bringing Iraqis a lively mix of music and the uncensored opinions of ordinary people. Radio Dijla, or Radio Tigris, was founded by Dr Ahmad Al-Rikabi, a former London bureau chief of the US-funded Radio Free Iraq."

Switching to a different medium, the producers on Iraqi TV think they have a hit in the making: "A morality play with a heavy dose of carjackings, kidnappings and murder, the series has been shooting throughout Baghdad since midspring. Weekly instalments will begin airing in August. [The producers] see the production as an artful and ultimately uplifting story. 'We will show them that evil is always punished, and that law must be observed. It is a reassuring message; it is about faith'," says one of the show's producers. And in real life, the "Washington Times" reports: "In Baghdad, life is violent, minds are frayed and Viagra sales reportedly have doubled since the war ended." In other film news, "[t]wo young film-makers are travelling the length of the great twin rivers running through Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates, to document daily life in the country ahead of the return of sovereignty on June 30. The pair set out this week on the arduous journey which will take them through 1,000 kilometers of some of the most dangerous terrain on earth without cars or much idea how they will reach their destination near the Gulf."

Rebuilding of the education system continues. Seven British colleges are playing host to 13 Iraqi education managers for a month-long management development programme in order to equip Iraqi higher education providers with the skills needed to rebuild a vocational education base at home, and thus help rebuild the infrastructure. And on the ground in Iraq, Leslye Arsht from a non-profit education consultancy, "has spent the past nine months helping Iraqis rebuild their school system - a mammoth task that started with removing the propaganda Saddam Hussein required children to learn. There's still a long way to go, but teachers are being retrained, new standards and goals are being adopted and deteriorated schools are being repaired getting fixed up for fall classes."

And the First Lady Laura Bush had jumped the gun on the authorities and announced that Baghdad will be Denver's new sister city.

ECONOMY AND INFRASTRUCTURE: The Iraqi Oil Ministry is developing plans to fully exploit its oil reserves - "Iraq has the largest number of undeveloped oil fields in the world. Together they are estimated to hold up to 60 billion barrels of proven reserves. 'Iraq is the only country among oil exporting and producing countries to posses a great number of fields which have not yet entered production'," says Minister Ghadhban. The oil sales since the liberation, by the way, have now reached $10.8 billion. For the future expansion, the project to construct a 700 km, $450 million pipeline to Jordan is back on the drawing board.

The Oil and the Electricity Ministries are joining forces to fight sabotage and ensure continuing supplies of power in the country. To that effect they will re-utilise the Middle East's largest fleet of truck tankers to keep power stations supplied with oil. In other plans: "Iraq's war-ravaged refineries and power plants are in need of massive repairs and the interim authorities say they want to spend $3 billion on their rehabilitation in 2005. Some $2 billion are expected to be spent on the country's ailing national grid, almost double this year's allocations." And how's this for a novel solution to electricity shortages: stop constant sabotage of electricity infrastructure.

Meanwhile, to help with continuing shortages, "the electrical connection projects between Jordan and Iraq, which will start from the Jordanian Al Risha transformer to the Iraqi station of Al Qaem over a length of 275 km with a capacity of 400 k/v, for supplying Iraq with electricity from the Egyptian grid through the Jordanian grid."

And in other energy news, this result of cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Iraqi engineers: "With the completion of new transmission projects and the rehabilitation of a turbine unit at Haditha Dam in Haditha, Iraq last week, for the first time since 1990 all six turbines were in full operation and the clean hydropower plant operated at full capacity, generating 660 megawatts."

In communications, Asiacell and Orascom, the two main telecommunication providers in Iraq have agreed to join their networks to enable both cell phone and land-line phone users to communicate through northern and central Iraq. And in transport, the administration of the Baghdad airport is now fully in the hands of Iraqi authorities, including the air traffic controllers who received training in Jordan and Singapore. In other airport news "one of three main terminals has been restored, improvements to the main runway and the radars are underway and Iraqi air traffic controllers... are handling most of the roughly 50 cargo charter flights a day. There also is a daily charter passenger flight from Jordan."

On the economic front, this, from an Iraqi blogger:

"After I got out of Tahreer Sq. and avoided traffic jam I passed the building of Baghdad Stock Exchange which we (my partners and I) spent a long time in as stock brokers (my basic profession) and I remembered what my partner said last Friday about it 'it's going to be opened this month and they practiced a test exchange last Saturday, and there was a great job done by the coalition helping the Iraqis old team to reopen as soon as possible'. Laws was changed, a new board of directors without government representatives, a new place, a new techniques of exchange, and of course many more job opportunities for the market staff and for brokers companies and for the investors. For us as a stock brokers firm, it’s a dream to reopen and establish stock exchange, especially when the American experts who helped to reopen the market are saying 'we are trying to develop new, modern exchange facilities'."
You can check out what's going up and what's going down at the Baghdad Stock Exchange here.

50 Iraqi bank managers, mostly from the private sector, have participated in a three-day training seminar in Amman, Jordan, organised by the Private Enterprise Partnership for the Middle-East, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. The aim "to introduce state-of-the-art banking practices in Iraq, where access has been highly constrained by its recent legacy of successive wars and international economic sanctions."

And in agricultural news, the Iraqi date palm industry is staging a come-back:

"Ali Jawad from the region of Dijail had his date palms uprooted in the 1980s by the former regime, as part of a campaign of collective punishment after some locals tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Iraq's once-flourishing date palm groves have been decimated by war, unrest and the collapse of infrastructure under United Nations' sanctions, according to officials and farmers.

"But the government's new program seeks to change all that. Indeed, Iraq's Agriculture Ministry is pursuing a policy of trying to restore what was once the world's leading date industry. According to a May 28 press release from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the ministry has already established 18 date palm orchards in 13 provinces. In one year, the nurseries will provide enough offshoots for 2,800 hectares of trees."
SOLDIERS AND IRAQIS: "After a couple of weeks of watching the news, I realized why the bleak attitude exists. The news we hear concentrates on the tragic setbacks and perceived shortfalls of our efforts, while minimizing our successes," says Maj. Rich Doyle, of Texas. For all the Coalition soldiers, frustrated that they only get in the news when shot at or blown up, let's publicise these stories:

The 203rd Engineer Battalion, originally from Missouri, is helping reconstruct Iraqi schools: "As well as overseeing the contractors, the battalion's own engineers supported the effort by performing electrical, carpentry, and plumbing work," the soldiers instituted a quality control system on local contractors, resulting in great improvement in quality of work. Meanwhile, Yash Sinha, a first lieutenant in a New Jersey-based Army Reserve civil affairs unit had learned that "[t]he way to Iraqi hearts is through their sewer pipes." Says Sinha of his experiences: "The people were very friendly. They'd invite me for lunch, offer me tea. They were always courteous. They wanted to hear a lot of things that were going on in the outside world." Major Danny Hassig, of the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion stationed on the Tigris River in Baghdad has been restoring "essential services such as waste management, medical services, food distribution, education and transportation systems, to the area." "Sometimes it seems like the good news just doesn't get out. There is so much good news," says Hassig.

And the 1st Naval Construction Division and Naval Construction Forces Command is "building camps for border patrols and other security forces, while also trying to co-opt young Iraqi men into the labor force." Says the commander Rear Adm. Charles R. Kubic of the challenges of reversing the legacy of dictatorship:

"There are a lot of good people here. In many cases they are keeping their heads down, keeping quiet and staying in the background because they and their families have been traumatized for decades. They've learned to be survivors, and it's very difficult for them to speak up because they don't have the natural alliances, don't have political parties or government structures, don't have natural ways to bond together."
Meanwhile in the capital, "U.S. troops battling guerrillas in Iraq's capital will pour half a billion dollars into infrastructure projects here over the next three months in a bid to win over residents and undercut insurgent support." That's, by the way, the 1st Cavalry:

"The money will be distributed through 100 different projects to build sewers, ensure potable water and rebuild electricity infrastructure. Iraqis will be contracted to implement the projects. In Sadr City, many power lines are thin, jerry-rigged cables strung so low across roads that U.S. Army vehicles have inadvertently ripped them down. The 1st Cavalry will replace many of them with strong, high-voltage cables."
Lastly, make sure that you read this story of Army Chief Warrant Officer Jared Kimber who drops toys to Iraqi children from his Black Hawk helicopter in the 82nd Medical Company, after noticing how many of them had nothing to play with. And about a retired military Guy Lassen, now a teacher who, inspired by the actor Gary Sinise's and author Laura Hillenbrand's Operation Iraqi Children, collects school supplies among his students to send them to Iraq.

SECURITY SITUATION: Overall, less fighting. Read about the new tactics being implemented on the ground:

"Lt. Col. Tim Ryan tried the carrot, and he tried the stick to put down insurgents fighting U.S. troops in his region west of Baghdad. In the end, he found what worked best is a little respect. He reached out to the tribal and religious leaders in the town of Abu Ghraib and offered a new beginning - in which they would be partners, not adversaries. So far, the deal has worked, and is being looked at as a potential model for when Iraqis regain sovereignty June 30."
Security of their country gradually passes into Iraqi hands:

"The interim Iraqi prime minister announced a reorganization of the country's fledgling security forces... and declared that all of Iraq's military resources, including the army, will be used to combat anti-U.S. insurgents, whom he denounced as 'enemies of God and the people'."
And "[t]he interim government is putting the finishing touches to a plan to set up special forces units. [The interim Prime Minister] Allawi... is discussing the plan with military commanders and has ordered the formation of at least three brigades and as soon as possible." The training of Iraqi security forces continues around the country:

"The United States military is preparing to train Iraqi police from the holy city of Najaf in urban warfare. Lieutenant General David Petraeus, the head of the US military's program to train and arm Iraq's new security forces, says the urban warfare training will be crucial to the future success of policing in Najaf. The local police chief wants weapons to match those used by the insurgents and General Petraeus has pledged to provide rocket-propelled grenades and flack-jackets."
And the US is training Iraqi women in the use of firearms in the hope that some of them will join the official Iraqi security forces: "The first time the women at the paramilitary training camp here went for shooting practice most were nervous, some started crying and others did not want to pick up the guns. Nearly four weeks later, Shemaa Jasem, 22, held up her paper target showing three small holes near the bull's-eye, and was disgusted. 'Bad shooting today,' she said."

Meanwhile, a second batch of Iraqi officers graduated from an 11-week training course at the King Abdullah I Infantry School in Zarqa, north of Amman, Jordan. "You are carrying the flags of your country and army, keeping in mind the security of your home and people with a sole slogan: no territoriality, no tribalism," in the words of the Jordanian director of the training program to the 843 graduates.

There's also more success with the local involvement in counter-terror ops:

"[T]he darkness of an early morning in Iraq, a convoy of 70-ton tanks and armored Humvees rumbles around Baghdad and beyond. Iraqi spies, supplied with digital cameras, global-positioning systems (search) and laptop computers, have identified enemy suspects believed to be selling improvised explosive devices. Paid informants sometimes 'talk' to their U.S. military handlers through Yahoo! chat rooms on the Internet, relaying critical information that targets alleged bomb makers."
It's not just Western contractors who are attracted to work in Iraq - in the area of security it's also people with some valuable regional experience: "Lebanese are sought after because of the military and security experience they have gained in our many wars, their relatively low salary demands compared to their Western counterparts, and their knowledge of the Arabic language which allows them to get by in an environment hostile to Westerners."

And there's other presence is Iraq, allegedly:

"Israeli military and intelligence operatives are active in Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria and Iraq, providing training for commando units and running covert operations that could further destabilise the entire region, according to a report in the New Yorker magazine. The article was written by Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who exposed the abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib. It is sourced primarily to unnamed former and current intelligence officials in Israel, the United States and Turkey. Israel's aims, according to Hersh, are to build up the Kurdish military strength in order to offset the strength of the Shia militias and to create a base in Iran from which they can spy on Iran's suspected nuclear-making facilities."
For Hersh and the "Guardian" all this is probably bad news, but I'll include it in this round-up anyway.

While I'm wary of children snitching on their parents (echoes of communism), in some cases one has to applaud such actions:

"One day in December, a smooth-chinned 14-year-old approached American soldiers at a checkpoint here and asked surreptitiously to be arrested. He told the soldiers that his father, an Iraqi Army officer under Saddam Hussein, led a 40-man cell of insurgents, and he agreed to show the troops where to find the men and their weapons.

"The soldiers put a sack over the teen's head, loosely cuffed his hands and led him away to a new life as an informant. U.S. officials say he has provided a wealth of military intelligence, allowing them to capture numerous insurgents in Iraq over the past six months.

"But the teenager's decision to turn on his father, who he says beat him, has cost him his family and his freedom. Since he began cooperating with the Americans, he has lived among U.S. troops, knowing that losing their protection would mean almost certain death at the hands of those he betrayed."
If the US is able to protect mafia informers, then it surely can protect this boy. Then there is this story:

"Portions of Iraqi Private Imad Abid Zeid Jassim's citation for bravery reads: '...[A]s the firefight ensued, under a hail of enemy fire that was accurately targeted on the wounded [U.S.] Marine, and without regard for his own safety, Private Imad Jassim moved forward into the enemy fire and came to the aid of the wounded Marine. He dragged the wounded Marine out of the line of fire to a covered and concealed position...reengaged the enemy...aggressively pushed forward...dislodged the enemy fighters.... His efforts clearly saved the life of the Marine...'."
Thanks for once again joining me for the good news round-up. I hope you'll visit in the future for more good news from Iraq - the next instalment post-June 30.


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