Monday, August 30, 2004

Good news from Iraq, Part 9 

Note: Also published in the "Opinion Journal" and at Winds of Change. Thanks to James Taranto and Joe Katzman for their continuing support.

Reporting from Iraq often reminds one of the old adage about the glass - in Iraq it seems to be half-empty at best; at worst, broken, with water fast sipping into the sand. The past two weeks have not been an exception. Whether covering the on-again off-again al Sadr uprising in Najaf (the glass half-full, excessively stirred), latest kidnappings (the glass missing altogether), interruptions in oil production (glass half-empty, but priced as if full), or the meeting of the Iraqi National Conference (too many half empty glasses, all clinking together), there was no escaping the continuing negativity of the mainstream media coverage.

Experts might debate exactly how much water there is in the Iraqi glass, but there is little doubt that - yet again - while the cameras and microphones were pointing towards the carnage, violence and corruption, Iraq has continued its slow and steady march out of its three-decades long nightmare into a much more normal tomorrow. Below are some of the positive developments and good news stories of the past fortnight that for most part received very little media attention. It's a pity because the story of "Iraq, the phoenix rising from the ashes" is in many ways a lot more interesting, not to say consequential, than the usual steady media diet of "Iraq, the Wild East."

SOCIETY: It's not often that an Arab newspapers editorialises about virtues of democracy and praises the march of freedom in Iraq, but this is exactly what the Saudi
"Arab News" has recently done:

"For the past month or so, while the media have been obsessed with the activities of Moqtada Sadr and his fighters in Najaf, much of the really important news about Iraq has gone largely unreported...

"[L]et us not begrudge Sadr's 15 minutes of fame... Students of journalism, however, know the difference between the events that furnish most of the daily headlines and the undercurrents that shape the broader context of a society's political life. Now what are the undercurrents that, with eyes fixed on the current events, are largely ignored?

"The most important is that post-liberation Iraq, defying great odds, has succeeded in carrying out its political reform agenda on schedule. A governing council was set up at the time promised. It in turn, created a provisional government right on schedule. Next, municipal elections were held in almost all parts of the country. Then followed the drafting of a new democratic and pluralist constitution. Then came the formal end of the occupation and the appointing of a new interim government.

"Earlier this month, the political reconstruction program reached a new high point with the convening of the National Congress."
The meeting of the National Congress has, indeed, been the most significant event, political or otherwise, in Iraq over the past two weeks. In the scenes reminiscent of deliberations of America's Founding Fathers, 1,300 delegates representing the widest possible cross-section of Iraq's political, ethnic and religious groups have met in Baghdad "to form a 'people's' council that will advise the interim government."

In the course of its often stormy sittings, the Iraqi National Conference has selected delegates to fill
81 seats on the new 100-member Interim National Council, with the other 19 spots reserved for members of the former Iraqi Governing Council. The Interim National Council, expected to operate until the elections of January 2005, will advise the interim government on policy issues and approve the 2005 budget; it will also the two-thirds veto power over the decisions of the Iraqi cabinet.

Most international media couldn't wait to find faults with the Conference. Typical of the coverage,
Agence France-Presse noted "poor preparation" and "charges... of behind the scenes manipulation", and went on to describe it as a "foreign-inspired gathering", "just a colorful photo opportunity", and "one big talk fest". The minority of reporters, however, chose to provide a far more positive way of looking at the event: "the conference... turn[ed] into a vociferous political convention of a kind unimaginable in the Saddam era."

For too long, the government of Iraq consisted of a room-ful of uniform-clad Saddam look-alikes listening attentively to Hussein's every word. Robust debate, controversy, and vehement disagreements - all present in large quantities at the Conference - are novel political experiences in Iraq. For the media, they are symptoms of political chaos and disorder, unless they take place in the West, in which case they're just called democracy.

Iraqi bloggers, as always, had a much better perspective on events than most of the Western media. Wrote Ali of
Iraq the Model:

"For the first time we saw free discussions with the absence of fear. No one man talking and the rest just listening and nodding their heads in approval. Many members were so eager to talk and show their opinions, interrupting each other many times and of course this is all natural as a result of being forced to silence for such a long time."
And Zeyad at Healing Iraq reminded his readers of just how much catching up the Iraqis still have to do in their march to democracy:

"[T]he majority of Iraqis are unfamiliar with the rules of parliamentary sessions. The closest thing we had to a parliament was abolished in 1958 with the introduction of 'Revolutionary' Republican rule. Whatever the level of political maturity Iraqis had accumulated at that stage, it slowly disintegrated year after year under the successive totalitarian ('Revolutionary') regimes. Today, 45 years later, we are back again at point zero.

"Under Ba'athist rule, proceedings from the so-called National Council were televised from time to time. The Revolutionary Command Council was the sole source of legislation, so basically the National Council had no other function but to approve and stamp the endless amendments. Votes were always unanimous. It was a joke really. A farce."
To their credit, some media outlets were able to recognize the reality. This NBC report had this to say about the Conference:

"They yelled and cursed, waving their hands in angry gestures. Surrounded by heavily armed American troops, they were holed up for days, with Iraq's future in the balance. But no one got killed. In scenes unimaginable under Saddam Hussein, and in sharp contrast to bloody battles in the holy city of Najaf, Iraqis this week formed the country's first representative council in three decades...

" 'We had no freedom to talk under Saddam,' said Dr. Raja al-Khuzai, a moderate Shiite taking a seat on the new assembly. 'Now I can stand and talk in front of 1,300 people.'

"A senior U.S. official described the formation of Iraq's interim National Assembly as an 'eye opener' in a region long governed by authoritarian rule. 'I have never seen a group (in the Arab world) speak so freely and so unconsciously,' the official said speaking on condition of anonymity. 'Clearly the reason was because there was no 'big brother' watching. There was no party line to follow'."
The new interim Iraqi National Council selected at the Conference is expected to have its first sitting on September 1.

Iraq's democratic elections are still a few months away, but the supporting
infrastructure is now starting to come together in time for January 2005. Iraq's Project and Contracting Office is currently completing a $3 million, thorough renovation of the building which formerly belonged to Saddam's Governing Council, but which will now house 600 employees of the new Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission. The United Nations, too, is sending in the first of the teams to assist with election preparations.

One party contesting the January election is
Iraqi Pro-Democracy Party, the brainchild of Ali and Mohammed, the creators of the very popular Iraqi blog, Iraq the Model. Ali and Mohammed explain the decision to throw their hats into political ring:

"For sometime we thought that we can help by doing our jobs and by posting our opinions here on the blog, and while we still think it does help, the battle against tyranny and fanaticism in our country demands more than that. It demands that each one of us put all the effort he/she can make and take an active stand regardless of how difficult or dangerous it may seem. We simply cannot just stand and watch and we hope that we will encourage others also to do their best in order to achieve our freedom and establish democracy in a country that suffered more than enough from wars, dictators, terrorists and fanatics. We believe that democracy is the only cure to all those diseases and the only answers to all threats. As hard the battle seems now and as far victory may look, we believe in our people and we believe in our friends and we know we will win."
Iraq could do with more people like Ali and Mohammed. Let's hope that the elections will bring forth many others who want to see Iraq become a safe and normal country that is no danger to its neighbor or its own people.

While important political events were unfolding in Iraq, overseas the spotlight was firmly on Iraqi athletes. The new Iraqi team finally made its debut appearance at the
Olympic opening ceremony: "The U.S. team were greeted with cheers at the opening of the Athens Olympics on Friday but Iraq's squad won an even warmer reception."

Iraq's new sporting heroes are the soccer team, which initially managed to get into the
final eight, after beating Costa Rica 2:0. The reaction back home was predictably ecstatic: "Shooting is all too common in Baghdad, but on Sunday night it was in a good cause... As the Iraqis secured their quarter-final spot, gleeful residents of the capital opened up with weapons of all calibers and tracer bullets could be seen streaking through the sky." The team has quickly become an international sensation and the pride of fans back home. Ahmed Al-Samarrai, the president of Iraq's Olympic Committee thinks there is a message in the team's success that all Iraqis should take to heart: "There are a lot of stupid people in Iraq, like Muqtada al-Sadr. They don't think about the future. I am asking the Iraqi people to look at this Olympic experience. This is life. This is how to live it."

Iraq's soccer dream run was to continue with a quarter-final 1:0
victory over Australia, which was again greeted by scenes of wild jubilation back home. In the words of the Qatar-based midfielder Emad Mohammed, who was responsible for the winning goal, "People where I live (in Iraq) have suffered so much... It's very confusing for us and hard to keep our minds on the game. But we hope we can give a little happiness to our country." As the report noted, the advancement into semi-finals was "an almost fairytale achievement for a team that shares a training pitch with grazing sheep in Baghdad."

While the team eventually went down 3:1 to Paraguay in the semi-finals, just getting that far had proved an
inspiration for most Iraqis: "I'm very proud of my team. It's great that the world got to see that we are not just people with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. We also know how to compete in the Olympics," said Rasheed Rumayed, who watched the game back home. And Adnan Khadin, who owns a sidewalk cafe in Baghdad had this to say: "It's still a great achievement even if we don't get a chance to win the gold... No other team in the world could have done half of what Iraq has done in the circumstances in which we are living."

Iraqis have also been following with keen interest the efforts of
Mohammed Ali, the 23-year old weight lifter from Sadr City in Baghdad. "I'm optimistic because things have changed, (with more) financial support and the general standard of living. I'm encouraged," Ali says. His namesake, Najif Ali, has also given his fellow Iraqis reasons to be celebrate, with his stunning 21-7 boxing victory over North Korea's Kwak Hyok Ju: "With his nation's flag on his chest and his American coach's chosen slogan - 'Iraq Is Back' - across his back, Ali punched, feinted and danced across the ring for four impressive rounds." And while Ali lost his next round's match with Aleksan Nalbandyan of Armenia, he is not too despondent: "All the people shouting my name was even bigger than winning. I know that people like me and like the way that I fight." Ali is now hoping to begin graduate school at the University of Houston while preparing for his professional debut.

One of the people credited with the success of the Iraqi Olympic team is
Mark Clark:

"He is being hailed as a national hero by the Iraqi people. After almost single-handedly rebuilding the sports network in the war-ravaged nation, he has been credited with ensuring that Iraq fielded a 25-strong team for this year's Olympic Games. And the man who is at the centre of the praise was born in Scotland.

"Mark Clark, a 30-year-old Edinburgh lawyer, is now Iraq's team manager and even helped the country's Olympic committee draft its constitution when the International Olympic Committee lifted a suspension in February on the country taking part in world athletics events...

"It was because of the Iraq war that Mr Clark ended up in the country. He had given up his job with Dundas & Wilson, an Edinburgh law firm to take up his posting in Iraq as a Territorial Army reserve officer. Last July, he began working with the coalition provisional authority, the temporary governing agency in Iraq. But with a degree in intellectual property and sport-related law, Mr Clark was invited to take on the role of adviser to the CPA on sport."
It's not just the Western assistance that got the Iraqi Olympic team to Athens; the Jordanian government has underwritten housing, training and equipment costs for the 25-member Iraqi squad. Says Prince Faisal bin Al-Hussein, the younger brother of King Abdullah: "Peace is greater than gold. But sometimes you have to restate the obvious."

Back home, sport and physical exercise are already
breaking down barriers:

"At the Arnold Classic Gym in Baghdad, two things matter: Arnold Schwarzenegger and bodybuilding.

"No matter what's happening outside - Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, mortars, kidnappings - this shabby gym is an island of civility. Under hundreds of pictures of oiled and bulging Arnolds, Kurds train next to Christians, Sunnis spot Shiites, and foreigners pump iron with the toughest Iraqi strongmen (Nick Berg used to be a regular). If you show up at the right time, you can even find a couple of Shiite women who come all the way from the distant and devoutly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiyah to bench press right alongside men. Here, at least, Iraq is one nation under maximum intensity training."
Not just sporting life, but culture, too, is reviving. The Iraqi arts community is finding some previously undreamed of outlets for its creativity, expanding into the cyberspace. Meanwhile, a theatre group is bringing Baghdad to Japanese audiences: "The troupe had written a play about actors, whose activities were prohibited under the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who took up arms to protect a theater from being plundered."

Lastly, Iraqis are now free to get a
tattoo - a practice that was banned under Saddam. "Now people have more freedom, people have a choice about what they do, there's no laws to restrict them," says Sarmad Shamael, a tattoo artist who himself now sports Celtic crosses, screaming eagles and death's heads.

ECONOMY: In Baghdad, the Ministry of Trade has recently announced that the city's old central markets, damaged during the 2003 fighting, will be converted into
modern shopping malls, due to a high demand from Western and Arab companies looking for commercial opportunities and more shopping space.

In manufacturing news, turning swords into ploughshares will soon become a reality in the new Iraq, as Ministry of Industry is developing plans to convert the country's once significant armaments industry into
civilian production. Meanwhile, the Destination Baghdad business expo (DBX), scheduled for later on this year, is gaining momentum as foreign corporations announce their intention to participate (Motorola being the latest one). DBX follows in the footsteps of the successful business opportunities showcase organized back in May in Turkey by the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which attracted some 1,500 Iraqi businessmen who used the opportunity to network with 120 foreign companies.

Some welcome efforts to modernize
Iraqi banking system are also taking place:

"With limited capital and investment, the majority of Iraq's banking processes are fairly primitive. Banking services are limited to deposit taking, cash withdrawals and manual cheque clearing, while newly printed Iraqi dinars are convoyed between bank branches, government buildings and businesses. Salaries are paid in cash, while most transactions also use hard currency.

"However, the situation does appear to be changing, with the implementation of a new inter-bank and intra-bank payment system controlled by the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI). This system allows for money transfer using a mechanism called original credit (OC), which is transacted through Visa's global processing network - VisaNet.

"The VisaNet system currently links together 20 state and privately-owned commercial Iraqi banks. To side-step problems with poor terrestrial communications networks, each of the banks' branches are able to access the network via a laptop-sized satellite communications receiver and satellite dish. Originally conceived as a mobile Internet connection tool by its makers Inmarsat, the satellite communications box links to VisaNet for payment processing, acting as a payment host terminal for the bank."
One of the foreign experts who has been helping Iraq to modernise its economy and banking system is Michael Silva of Little Silver, New Jersey. SIlva, an employee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, had for three months acted as an advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq. After returning from Baghdad, Silva is optimistic about the country's future: "The Iraqis are very educated, and they are very entrepreneurial, very hard working. They're tough because they've lived under 25 years of brutal dictatorship. You've got capital, you've got education, you've got a work ethic."

transport news, "Iran's semi-privatized shipping line has offered to help develop the Iraqi economy by using its shipping and land links to open a transportation route to the war-torn country." In the air, "[a]n Iraqi Airways Boeing 737 made a test flight from Amman to Baghdad on Monday for the first time since the airline's planes were grounded in Jordan by UN sanctions in 1990." The resumption of normal services is planned in the near future. And on the land, 137 kilometers of the new railway line between Baghdad and Baiji have been finished so far. New materials used in manufacturing the tracks will make travel safer and faster, up to 120 kilometers per hour. In Baghdad, meanwhile, the work has started to modernise the hub:

"The Iraq Republic Railway (IRR) recently held a ceremony to celebrate the start of the Baghdad Central Railway Station rehabilitation, with the aid of the PCO/US Mission-Iraq. The building is badly in need of repair from years of neglect, according to the Project and Contracting Office (PCO). Approximately 200 Iraqis will work to make the facility comfortable, clean and safe for employees and railway customers alike.

"Construction on the station began in 1916 by the Germans and was completed by the British in 1948 on an art deco structure. All train movements through Iraq are controlled, monitored and coordinated from this facility. Although the railway system is only operating at 43 per cent of its total capacity currently, it is the most economic way to transport Iraq's grain, oil, and containerised construction equipment. The railway system is part of a 2,400 km track network which goes from Port of Umm Qasser to Turkey.

"The renovation, which began on 12 August, will restore all building systems, including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical and power, as well as fencing and lighting. The non-construction portion of the project will include spare parts for the diesel locomotives which come from England, the Czech Republic, Poland, China, Russia, Germany and France.

"Trains will be equipped with VISTAR tracking device, which will track all engines at any one time to enhance safety and security. 'It's one thing to do the work and another to do it well,' said David Nash, director of the PCO. 'With state of the art technology, Iraq makes the jump from massive disrepair to modern safety and design'."
In communications news, Ray Murphy, a New York postal employee who has led the American team working with Iraqi counterparts to restore the country's postal system, has some good news to report:

"Murphy said in a recent interview that circumstances were grim for the mail when his five-member team arrived there six months ago. Domestic mail that once took weeks to reach its destination is now getting delivered in days, and the time for international deliveries has gone from months to weeks.

"Murphy said the economic neglect over the last 30 years was 'horrifying,' and the system had deteriorated so much under Saddam Hussein's government that a letter from abroad took three to six months to arrive.

"The team found that of 375 post offices, 275 were functioning with limited coverage. Only an estimated 13 percent of Iraqis use the mail.

"Murphy's team helped establish postal codes to improve speed and reliability and negotiated with the Universal Postal Union to get Iraq full voting-member status. The organization coordinates postal policies among its 189 member nations."
The normal postal service between Iraq and the United States, by the way, has now been restored.

As its economy grows, Iraq is starting to experience
economic immigration: the Iranian "government's policy of not hiring Sunni Iranians in mid-level and high-level management positions, even in their own areas, has driven educated Iranian Kurds to northern Iraq, where they are hired in managerial and administrative positions by the local government and industries." Kurdistan is also attracting more regional development opportunities, as South Korean businesses follow in the wake of the local deployment by the South Korean troops:

"Latif Aref, general director of the Kurdistan Regional Government's office for registering companies, said there had been a 25 percent rise in new registrations of Kurdish companies since Arbil was formally selected as the location for the Korean deployment.

" 'We are going to see much wider export and import trade with the Korean market,' said Aref, adding that a long-awaited foreign investment law would soon be put into action.

"Sitting outside Arbil's unfinished airport terminal with his Kurdish mobile phone glued to his ear, Jeong-Hee agreed that the Kurdish zone could be ripe for foreign investment - provided the investment laws provided guarantees for foreign firms. 'The region does have good advantages - like easy access to Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Kurds could make this area into prosperous free-trade zone,' he said."
More good news for the Kurds, as global shipping firm Transoceanic opens its second (after Baghdad) Iraq office in Mosul: "the office will cater to the needs of companies focused on construction efforts in northern Iraq. The Mosul team is available 24/7 to supervise cargo transports and to provide ongoing status reporting."

There are positive developments on the
agricultural front, too, with the announcement by Iraqi Minister of Agriculture, Dr Sawsan Ali Al Sharifi, of numerous new projects, including new cattle breeding stations, which will in addition supply manure to private sector farmers. "The ministry is [also] working on importing cows and the rehabilitation of an artificial fertiliser centre. It has also prepared a plan to establish new fish aquariums in the Baghdad area while many foreign and Arabian companies look to rehabilitate the Al-Soeira center." In order to provide a fresh start for its agriculture industry, Iraq is currently importing 360,000 tons of seeds. And in the area of Research and Development, the Agriculture Ministry is conducting more valuable research on the use of salt water in irrigation. This is part of an overarching effort to develop greater agricultural opportunities in areas of high salinity, a problem common in many areas of the country.

RECONSTRUCTION: The international efforts continue to bring the Iraqi infrastructure into the twenty first century after the destructive hiatus of Saddam's rule. As one
report notes:

"After long delays and broken deadlines, there are signs that the largest reconstruction effort since World War II's Marshall Plan is poised to explode. New and refurbished power stations are starting up weekly. Contractors are finishing plans for building thousands of schools, clinics and infrastructure projects. Iraqi jobs have soared from 5,300 daily employees to more than 88,000."
Let's hope that the pace does indeed pick up. The World Bank has now come onboard with some hands-on reconstruction assistance:

"The World Bank is aiming to embark on its first reconstruction projects in Iraq since the overthrowing of the previous regime, the head of the bank's Iraq program declared on Monday. Faris Hadad-Zervos said that the projects would improve infrastructure within Iraq, helping to provide water and sanitation and to rehabilitate schools.

The bank's interim reconstruction program for Iraq estimates projects for Iraq, which also include labor-intensive irrigation schemes, are likely to cost between $400 and $600 million. The World Bank officially recognized the new Iraqi government on 29 June, the day after it was sworn in, opening the way for money to be loaned to the country."
Other governments, too, are providing reconstruction assistance to Iraq: over the next three years starting in 2005, Japan is expected to contribute some $3.5 million in loans and $1.5 billion in direct grants towards modernization of energy and water infrastructure, as well as health system. The Japanese government is also planning to provide some practical training assistance for Iraqi professionals: in September, about 40 Iraqi health workers and between 20 and 30 diplomats will come to Japan to learn and update their skills. Japan will also pay Egypt to conduct in September and November this year training programs for 375 Iraqi doctors and medical workers and 75 Iraqi electrical engineers.

World Bank is also contributing to the training effort: "Up to 30 civil servants from various Iraqi ministries were recently awarded certificates at a small graduation ceremony, marking the conclusion of a two-week training course on financial management, procurement and project management. Financed by a European Union grant contributed to the World Bank-administered Iraq Trust Fund, this course represents the latest in a series of 20 training activities launched since February with the intention of gearing Iraqi civil servants to manage internationally funded reconstruction projects." So far, the World Bank has provided for training of some 600 Iraqi officials and professionals as part of its capacity-building program.

On a somewhat smaller scale, though just as usefully, a group of
25 Iraqi agriculture delegates will be attending a four-and-a-half month training course organized through Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Curtin University. The course will bring the Iraqis up to speed with the world's best practices and update them on the latest research to help them re-establish a successful agriculture industry back home.

Russian government, too, has offered to train Iraqi teachers, hospital staff and rescue workers, in addition to oil industry workers already receiving training.

Elsewhere, vital infrastructure is being created. A small Utah firm, Altiris Inc, for example, is building and managing the
growing computer network used by the Coalition forces and Iraqi authorities. Says P.J. Bulger, senior vice president of Altiris' partner 3HT: "Our efforts do not even compare with what the men and women of the Coalition Forces, Iraqi government and Iraqi people are doing... Hopefully, we made their jobs a little bit easier as they move forward - but the people that remain in the area working day to day with the rebuilding are the real heroes."

In education news,
Iraq's regional neighbors continue to contribute towards rehabilitation of Iraqi schools: "Dubai TV is airing a six-hour live telethon on September 3 as part of its fund-raising efforts for schools in Iraq. The telethon is in cooperation with Unicef and Dubai Aid City (DAC). Funds will go towards the Getting Iraqi children back to school campaign, launched by Unicef in June." The international community, too, is providing considerable assistance to Iraq's education system. UNICEF, which targets its efforts at improving the lot of children has no illusions: "[R]eversing the trends towards degradation of the last two decades will be one of the major challenges of the reconstruction effort." UNICEF has already helped rehabilitate 220 schools, and distributed teaching materials to 18,000 schools country-wide. In addition, "UNICEF also helps deliver water to 350,000 people every day. About 200 projects are underway to repair pumping stations, treatment plants and sewage works that will improve the lives of millions of people."

Meanwhile, new technology gives hope and opportunities to Iraq's
gifted students:

"A room full of teenage girls in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, are chatting with each other during the last five minutes of class, practicing their hard-learned English. In the classroom next door, teenage boys are designing logos to put on posters they will make to explain computer projects. After a 15-minute break, the two groups switch - the girls clustering around the 10 or so computers, the boys in the English-language class.

"After months of planning and red tape, the al-Amal Association, an Iraq-based aid agency, has started working with a group of students chosen for their leadership abilities and their smartness. More than 40 boys and 40 girls attend the enrichment classes at the al-Amal office three days a week.

"Students will learn how to use the computers, correspond with teenagers in Canada and other places by Internet and sharpen their English language skills, Laith Salman, a computer teacher, told IRIN. They'll also learn about how to deal with the conflict still going around them and other 'social phenomena,' Salman said."
After three decades of wasted opportunities there is a lot of catching up to do.

In the
health sector, one Iraqi sub-contracting company working on air conditioning units in Sadr City Hospital reduces the temperature inside the building from 38º C to 24º C. Great Britain, Italy, India, Croatia and other countries are providing medical assistance to Iraqi children who cannot get necessary treatment in Iraq. And down south, Basra Health Administration has recently started the construction work on eleven new clinics, including a new training facility. Challenges abound, but significant progress has already been achieved, as this expert who helped to rebuild Iraq's health system testifies:

"Michigan's former top health official wants Americans to remain patient. It takes time to rebuild a country. James K. Haveman Jr., who served as director of the Michigan Department of Community Health during the Engler and Granholm administrations, had a firsthand look at Iraq's rebuilding process as a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Health...

"Iraq's health care system was in a shambles when Haveman arrived in 2003. The twin, 11-story towers that served as Iraq's Ministry of Health were looted and 65 percent of the equipment in hospitals didn't work, Haveman said. Yet there was no shortage of technology or expertise. For instance, Haveman said the coalition authority found 55 X-ray machines in a warehouse still in their crates.

"Why? The regime wanted the country's health care system to deteriorate so it could blame United Nations sanctions, Haveman said. Of particular importance to Haveman and the provisional authority's health team was addressing Iraq's high infant mortality rate, which Haveman said was deliberately ignored for political purposes.

"By the time Haveman left Iraq, he said 240 hospitals and 1,200 clinics were back on line. The Ministry of Health had its first real budget in years, spending $1 billion, or about $40 per capita, compared to a health budget of $16 million during Saddam's reign. Doctors, pharmacists and other health professionals were making a living wage -- $383 a month for physicians -- for the first time in years. Authorities are aiming to reduce the infant mortality rate, at 130 deaths per 1,000 births under Saddam, by half."
In electricity news, more power will be available for the south of the country, with the opening of the new 52 Megawatt generator at the Khor Az Zubayr power plant, 40km south of Basra. The generator will be producing enough power to supply an extra 156,000 homes. According to the Iraqi Electricity Ministry, more generators are expected to come online over the next few weeks to satisfy growing demand for electricity: "With more than half a million new jobs created, new industries and new factories coming on line and with the sale of thousands of home appliances such as washing machines and air conditioners, Iraq has experienced a rapid increase in electricity demand. The increase in demand is a good sign of a thriving economy emerging from three decades of isolation." This is the first new power generator to be opened in Iraq since 1976.

A second new
generator has also now started operation: "The Iraq electrical grid will be able to service an additional 84,000 homes... thanks to a new generator in southern Iraq. The 28-megawatt generator at the Nasiriya Power Station near Al Amarah came online over the weekend and is the second new power station in the country built from scratch by Iraqi and American engineers. 'This is very good news,' said Raad Shalal, an official at the Iraq Ministry of Electricity. 'This will help to reduce the shortage of electricity across the country.' Iraq and US engineers have reduced the shortage this month, adding 152 megawatts to the national grid to bring the national total to more than 5,200 megawatts - enough to service 15.6 million Iraqi homes." You can read more about the new generators here.

Overall, the Ministry of Electricty has recently allocated
$1.5 billion for the reconstruction and development of the electricity sector. The Iraqi authorities are also working to protect country's electricity assets, cooperating with Jordanians who are supplying equipment and the Thai who are providing training for security staff. You can also read this story of how the Coalition authorities have poured resources and effort into the Baiji power station north of Baghdad to now watch five stacks of smoke shooting into the sky, instead of just one or none back in February.

water supply around Baghdad is improving, too, as 35-year old water networks are undergoing some much needed upgrades, thanks yet again to American funds. More on that here.

You might also
recall the international efforts to restore the marshlands of southern Iraq, which have been destroyed by Saddam in revenge for the Shia uprising in 1991. Japan will now provide the necessary assistance for the project: "Japan will provide environmental protection technology as well as necessary funds to develop human resources in the environmental field."

THE COALITION TROOPS: The Coalition forces have a lot more on their plates than just their essential security role. Every day around the country, civil affairs detachments of Army and Marine units are working hard on reconstruction and aid projects. These are people like Major
Harry Klein:

"Klein leads a team that works for 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, normally based in Fort Hood, Texas. The battalion has completed 62 projects at a cost of more than $4 million and has requested another $4 million."
Meanwhile, soldiers from the Alpha Battery of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery are helping to save the Dina Institute, a private hospice which cares for around 60 Iraqi children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities:

"The institute was on the verge of collapse a couple of months ago, with too many children and rent three months overdue. The prospect of sending children home or closing altogether loomed...

"The unit commander, Capt. Mike Burgoyne, had heard about the institute from local leaders and decided to check it out. Jawad told him the institute had no money, and food was scarce. They had had no meat for more than a month.

"Moved to action by what he had witnessed, Burgoyne worked with Hanson, the battalion's civil affairs officer, to tap the Army's civil affairs funds and give the institute $3,000. They brought a pallet loaded with food and supplies."
And they also arranged for the Institute to be transferred to a house that used to belong to one of Saddam Hussein's wives.

It's not just construction and infrastructure work - the troops are also helping individual victims of war or circumstance.
Ma'rwa Ahteemi, Iraqi girl who was wounded in a Coalition artillery strike, received medical treatment in Iraq and the United States thanks to the chain of US military personnel and civilians, which started with Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, and soon grew into a full-fledged charity operation. There is also this story of an Iraqi boy:

"Several weeks ago, life looked bleak for young Abdul Jabur Raid Jabar. The 8-year-old was in a small, war-torn Iraqi town with little hope of getting treatment for his life-threatening heart condition.

"Then, coalition forces came through his town and his father asked for help. The U.S. military sent out information about the boy, which caught the attention of Heidi Hess, a Tampa nurse practitioner at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

"Working through the Gift of Life program, which Hess and her late husband, Gary Haas, established at St. Joseph's eight years ago, Hess arranged to bring Jabar to Tampa, where he arrived Thursday."
The troops' families, friends and neighbors back home also continue to bring assistance to people of Iraq. Homewtown families attached to the Army National Guard base in Paris, Arkansas, for example, have been collecting and sending over "back to school" gifts for Iraqi children. Others have been organizing some much needed help for victims of war:

"Iraqi civilians who've lost arms and legs in the war will soon get new prosthetics from Methodist Rehabilitation Center's Operation Restoration program.

"A truckload of amputee supplies will leave Jackson on Wednesday, heading to the U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, where the supplies will be shipped to a free amputee clinic in Baghdad.

"Certified prosthetist Steve Lindsley, who's serving in Iraq with the Army's Canton-based 112th Military Police Battalion, came up with the idea after seeing a great number of Iraqi amputees."
And sometimes in Iraq, soldiers even fall in love, like Robert Hall, of the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, who has just married Vivian Mansour, a Christian Kurd from Baghdad.

DIPLOMACY AND SECURITY: After years of tense relations, Iraq is slowly normalizing relations with its
northern neighbor: "Ankara and Iraq's interim government entered a new era in their bilateral relations when Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yaver arrived... for a two-day visit to Turkey. This is the first postwar high-level contact between our neighboring countries, a development which is expected to speed the normalization of bilateral relations. It is also al-Yaver's first visit to a foreign country. His choosing Turkey for his first state visit shows that Baghdad places a high premium on its relations with Ankara. In addition, as Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is also expected to visit Turkey next month, our two countries seem to have plans to improve their relations further."

Meanwhile, some positive words from the
European Commission President-designate Jose Manuel Barroso: "Some people in Europe may think that it is good that things are going badly for the US. I really think that is an irrational and a bad policy." Barroso also called on his fellow Europeans to "leave behind our disagreements on Iraq" and "give a positive, strong contribution to the Iraqi problem." Barroso has always been pro-American and a supporter of war in Iraq, so his statements are not surprising, but hopefully under his leadership more time and attention will be given to the voices of reason within Europe.

Security situation inside Iraq is still precarious, of course, but are some positive developments, too. In Najaf,
Iraqi army has been fighting alongside the American forces to crush the al Sadr uprising. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force, trained by the Americans and the Jordanians, has taken to the skies, with the maiden flight of two Seabird Seeker SB7L-360 reconnaissance aircraft. The once 750-aircraft strong Iraqi air force, destroyed in wars and through neglect, is expected to soon grow from 162 to 500 personnel and take over some of the surveillance missions over Iraq.

NATO's 50-strong
Training Implementation Mission in Iraq, led by Dutch Major General Carel Hilderink has began their task of helping the main Coalition forces to train the new Iraqi army: "The mission's tasks include liaising with the Iraqi interim government and US-led multinational forces, helping Iraq establish defence and military headquarters and identifying Iraqi personnel for training outside the country." Germany has also pledged to assist in a separate program, training Iraqi military personnel in the United Arab Emirates.

While the NATO partners are only just beginning their involvement with Iraqi security forces, the Coalition troops already on the ground in Iraq
continue to train Iraqi personnel:
"Next to a dirt-packed soccer field on an island in the middle of the Tigris River, the men who represent the long-term U.S. exit strategy for Iraq crawl through the dirt.

"Taking shelter behind a makeshift barricade of stacked sandbags, one of the Iraqi National Guard trainees aims his AK-47 and fires at an invisible enemy. 'Bang, bang,' he shouts, mimicking the sound his rifle would make if it were loaded. After firing several imaginary rounds, he ducks his head back under the sandbags. 'That's bull,' U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Haily Darnell, one of the ING drill instructors, shouts - along with several colorful expletives - at the trainee prostrate in the dirt. 'That's just bull. Go back and do it again'."
Read the full story of how American soldiers at the "ING Island," a 25-acre facility inside the 1st Infantry Division's headquarters in Tikrit, are training Iraqi recruits.

Other allies also contribute in vital security roles.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, also a scene of war not that long ago, is planning to send a mine clearing unit to Iraq. "Defense Minister Nikola Radovanovic said... the Balkan country has a moral obligation to help in Iraq after all the international assistance it received during the conflict of the 1990s in the Balkans."

Iraq's 3,500 kilometer long, porous
border has in the past provided little by way of obstacles for foreign insurgents crossing over to fight the Coalition forces. Now, "Iraq is training 15,000 new border guards and hopes to have them in place within six weeks." There are certainly some signs of better controls already in place, as border guards confiscated 100 tank-containers and 20 ships that were used to smuggle oil. As well, "Iraqi border and customs police foiled an attempt to smuggle weapon production lines to Iran in eastern Iraq of Diyala... The productions lines, remains of the former Iraqi institution of military industry, were disassembled and hidden under heaps of junk in six 16-ton-cargo cars. The haul included complete lines for manufacturing different kinds of weapons, explosives and small arms."

Next time you have a drink, make sure you invite
Barakat Jassem for a glass of water. Jassem, a native of Baghdad and a one of 18 children, has been until recently working as an English translator for Iraqi TV. Once, when working on a Bette Davis movie, "The Virgin Queen," a mistake he made had angered Uday Hussein so much that Jassem was thrown into jail for 30 days. Jassem is now studying at Dartmouth College under the newly reinstated Fulbright program. He has this to say:
"I see the Americans working hard day and night to establish the basic needs for the Iraqi people... I think people (in America) are divided because it's a war. War is always a bad idea. [But] I want to emphasize this point. For me, it was 100 percent a liberation. There's nothing worse than a dictator."
It often happens that the people who have been thirsty for a long time can tell you the most about water.


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