Monday, January 31, 2005

Good news from Iraq, Part 20 

Note: Also available at the "Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. Big thanks to James Taranto and Joe Katzman for their support, and to the growing band of readers and fellow bloggers who send suggestions and spread the good news.

It happened. And they did it.

In scenes unimaginable only two years ago - and scorned as impossible, undesirable and impractical for months - millions of ordinary Iraqi men and women braved terrorist violence and came out to vote for their future government (for a brief election fact file see

The first to vote were Iraqi expatriates around the world, who got the chance to cast their ballots two days before the election day in Iraq. And the first ones among the exiles were Iraqis in Australia. Kassim Abood, a senior adviser to the out-of-country voting program, told journalists outside
a polling station in Sydney, "I think a lot of Iraqis are very proud today. People coming to me, shake (my) hand, hug me, kissing me and tell me 'congratulations', it's wonderful." The "Daily Telegraph" reported that "exiles danced in the street as they cast their ballots at nine polling stations in Australia. Turnout was high and some proudly displayed the blue ink on their fingers which proved that they had cast their ballots, calling it 'a mark of freedom'." You can also read this story of an Israeli who voted in the election. Overall, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which coordinated the overseas vote estimated that around 30% of Iraqis living outside of their country would have voted.

In Iraq, millions came out to vote, despite well-advertised threats of election day violence. Al Zarqawi promised that the streets would flow red with the blood of voters, and indeed at least 36 people around the country died in suicide, grenade and mortar attacks, but the color of the day was not blood red but the
purple marking the forefingers of those who have cast their ballot.

As predicted, the turnout was highest in the Shia and Kurdish parts of the country, moderate in mixed areas and lowest in Sunni strongholds, but everywhere it exceeded expectations. The total turnout figures are preliminary at this stage; Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission says that around 60%, or 8 million, of those registered to vote did so. Earlier unconfirmed figures put the number even higher, at around 72%. Either figure puts to shame the average election turnout throughout the West where there is no danger that the journey to the polling station could be your last.

Throughout the Kurdistan, the turnout has been described as
"very high". In Kurdish Erbil, the lines were lengthy and crowds turned up right from the start, despite the early morning chill. In Basra, a 90% turnout was reported. In other part of the Shia south, the enthusiasm was just as palatable: "Some rode on donkey-carts. Others piled into buses laid on for voters. Most came on foot, steadying the elderly and pushing the disabled in wheelchairs to the ballot box. Voters in Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Najaf turned out in force on Sunday, many walking for kilometres through filthy streets, to cast their ballots in Iraq's first multi-party election in half a century... Some began trickling in as soon as the region's 240 polling centres opened at 7 a.m. By mid-morning queues of voters snaked around schools used as voting places, everyone holding their documents at the ready. 'It is a good feeling to experience democracy for the first time,' said Isra Mohammed, a housewife in the black Islamic robe traditionally worn by women in southern Iraq." 80-year Mahdeya Saleh had this to say: "I had often been forced to vote under Saddam Hussein. Today I come out of my own will to choose freely the candidate of my choice for the first and last time in my life."

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, one
report observed: "With private vehicles banned to prevent car bombs, Iraqis took over the streets of Baghdad, playing soccer and going for walks - even those in wheelchairs were pushed along - as threats of catastrophic attacks failed to materialize. 'Why should I be afraid?' asked Arifa Abed Mohamed, an elderly woman in a black abaya, who was first to vote at dawn on one Baghdad polling station. 'I am afraid only from God'."

Long queues
were reported throughout Baghdad's Sadr City. Elsewhere in the capital, "Western Baghdad polling stations were busy, with long queues of voters. Most went about the process routinely, filling in their ballots and leaving quickly without much emotion. Others brought chocolates for those waiting in line, and shared festive juice drinks inside the voting station. Samir Hassan, 32, who lost his leg in a car bomb blast in October, was determined to vote. 'I would have crawled here if I had to. I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me. Today I am voting for peace,' he said, leaning on his metal crutches, determination in his reddened eyes." Others went to great lengths to vote: "Determined not to be marginalized, a woman who gave her name only as Umm Ali, the mother of Ali, said she moved for three days out of Doura, a district on Baghdad's southern edge thick with insurgents, so she could vote in relative safety. 'I came here to relatives, because in Doura there are many [insurgent] operations,' says Umm Ali, in broken English. 'Everyone in my neighborhood had left to vote. I have no feeling of fear - Allah has won'."

Throughout Baghdad, the turnout (reported
as high as 95%) disappointed the boycotters: "Asked if reports of better-than-expected turnout in areas where Sunni and Shiite Muslims live together indicated that a Sunni cleric boycott effort had failed, one of the main groups pushing the boycott seemed to soften its stance. 'The association's call for a boycott of the election was not a fatwa (religious edict), but only a statement,' said Association of Muslim Scholars spokesman Omar Ragheb. 'It was never a question of something religiously prohibited or permitted'."

While many areas throughout the Sunni triangle (like
Tikrit or Samarra) were deserted, elsewhere throughout this restive area the democracy could not be completely kept down: "Even in Falluja, the Sunni city west of Baghdad that was a militant stronghold until a U.S. assault in November, a steady stream of people turned out, confounding expectations. Lines of veiled women clutching their papers waited to vote. 'We want to be like other Iraqis, we don't want to always be in opposition,' said Ahmed Jassim, smiling after he voted. In Baquba, a rebellious city northeast of Baghdad, spirited crowds clapped and cheered at one voting station. In Mosul, scene of some of the worst insurgent attacks in recent months, U.S. and local officials said turnout was surprisingly high."

To sample some of the joy of average Iraqis undiluted by the media, read Iraqi bloggers.
Mohammed and Omar write in the aftermath of the vote: "We could smell pride in the atmosphere this morning; everyone we saw was holding up his blue tipped finger with broad smiles on the faces while walking out of the center. [We] couldn't think of a scene more beautiful than that." Read also blogger Ali's journey to the polling station. Blogger Zeyad writes: "My mother was in tears watching the scenes from all over the country." Aala wrote about "suicide bombers versus suicide voters;" the latter have won the day. Hammorabi reported on crowds demonstrating when some polling stations failed to open on time in Mosul. And the Friends of Democracy site is running first-hand reporting from around the country.

Overall, the election turned out to be not only less bloody than expected, but it also received a clean bill of health from
observers: "A group that organized 10,000 independent observers said there had been little fraud. 'In general the elections went ahead in an excellent way and there was very little fraud or violations,' a spokesman for the Ain (Eye) non-governmental organisation said."

The results will not be known for 7 to 10 days. The election itself, however, is only a start of a long political journey for the people of Iraq. To find out what's in store in the near future, including drafting of the new constitution read this

Below, more under-reported stories of what has been taking place in Iraq over the past two weeks.

SOCIETY: This is how the poll preparations and the campaign have unfolded over the past two weeks up to the election day. By mid-January,
voter rolls have finished being compiled, and copies were posted in hundreds of locations around the country to enable people who might not have been included to petition for amendments, as well as to enable challenges to validity of other names on the list. In the words of Carlos Valenzuela, the United Nations official in charge of the election preparation, "Everything [was] on track... It was a very tight time frame... [but] luckily, there was no slippage." To make the poll happen, between 50 and 60 million forgery-proof ballot papers have been supplied to Iraq by Australia and Canada, as were 90,000 ballot boxes. On January 25, the electoral commission has started publishing the names of candidates.

The authorities have put the following
security arrangements in place for polling: the election day itself has been declared a holiday; restrictions on car traffic around polling stations have been placed to safeguard against car bombs; and travel restrictions between provinces were ordered. Iraq's land borders were also to be sealed, and the Baghdad airport closed.

In the run-up to the poll many concerns were expressed about the level of Sunni participation in Iraq's democratic process. Those who focused on the likely turn-out were likely to miss
the bigger picture: "111 'entities' are running for office in the National Assembly. Some of the entities are political parties, some are coalitions of political parties, some are single candidates or handfuls of candidates. In many of the cases, Sunnis and Shiites are on the same slate, including the slate being offered by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. In that regard, say officials, even if Sunnis don't go to the polls in some areas, Sunnis will be represented nationally." In any case, the election itself was only a start: "Sunni Arab leaders who have been the most vocal in calling for a boycott or postponement of the coming elections say they intend to get involved in politics after the vote, including taking part in writing a permanent constitution. There is too much at stake, with the constitution to be drafted by August 2005 and full-term elections held by year's end, for Sunni groups to reject the political process, the leaders say, even if they are sticking to their denunciation of the elections."

As for the question of election violence, the UN's Carlos Valenzuela, himself a veteran of many a dangerous election throughout the developing world,
had this to say: "(Conditions) are not the best and certainly far from ideal, but if the security measures work there is a very good chance that the elections that take place will take place successful... and will be accepted as legitimate... There has been violence in the run-up and it is likely that there will at least be attempts at violence on the day... But violence does not necessarily disqualify the elections."

Despite these concerns, the
public support for the election continued to be high during the run-up:

"Two thirds of Iraqis would like to have the elections on schedule, according to a survey by a Baghdad University’s research center... Of those questioned, 64.2% said they believed the elections 'are the best way to select a new government.'

"When they were asked whether the elections will bring stability and peace to the country, 34.3% said any new government will find it hard to restore normalcy...

"More than half of the respondents (59%) agreed that the January vote would boost the democratic process and lead to enhanced popular participation in decision-making... Almost two thirds of those surveyed said they believed the elections will bring 'qualified officials' to lead the country...

"More than half of the respondents (54.9%) said the elections will bring 'economic prosperity' while 45.1% thought the opposite.

"According to the survey 4.2% of Iraqis think elections 'are a concept which is strange to our traditions' while the rest believed Iraqis can handle their affairs in a democratic way.

"More than half of the respondents said there was no problem to have democratic elections under foreign occupation."
This should serve to remind us that the true heroes of this process were the Iraqi people themselves, braving many dangers and challenges in order to be able to elect their own government. Some of their stories bear recalling, if only to also show the variety of the experiences throughout the country.

Among those who registered to vote was
Samir, the Iraqi translator who first identified Saddam after he was captured near Tikrit. As he says, "It was like a special day, a very special day... That's the man that destroyed millions of lives in Iraq. He was in my hand, actually. I grabbed him. I was there." Democracy can be the best revenge. But on the other end of the spectrum, this:

"Abdullah Hussein was once a loyal general in Saddam's army. He cast a Yes vote in a carefully staged referendum for the dictator just five months before the war and fought against the US and British invasion until the day the Iraqi regime fell on April 9 2003.

"Nearly two years later, Mr Hussein has cautiously embraced the new American authorities in Iraq. He is now deputy provincial governor in his hometown Tikrit, the staunchly Sunni Muslim city 100 miles north of Baghdad that was also Saddam's home and tribal heartland. On Sunday he intends to cast his vote in parliamentary elections and will even stand for a seat on the provincial council."
This Baghdad bookshop also offered a glimpse into the thoughts of some in the capital:

"In a country wrecked by violence, a tiny bookstore in a dusty mall offers a quiet corner where customers can escape the misery and the owners can dare to sound hopeful. Here students too poor to finance their studies can borrow books for a week at 20 cents each, and the two men who own the Iqra'a bookstore can indulge their conviction that their business is also a mission.

"Such positive attitudes set Mohammed Hanash Abbas and Attallah Zeidan apart in a country where the prevailing mood has been shaped by three wars since 1980, almost 13 years of crushing sanctions, the humiliation of foreign occupation and the brutality of the insurgency.

" 'I don't just see light at the end of the tunnel, I see light at the start and throughout the tunnel,' says Abbas, 41, in a typically upbeat remark. His partner Zeidan, 39, agrees. 'We must live like other people,' Zeidan says. 'Let a million of us die. That's the price of freedom. Have you heard of any society that gained freedom without sacrifices?'...

"While their openly upbeat attitude is unusual, their views are not uncommon among the many Iraqis who have neither taken up arms against the Americans nor actively cooperated with them."
Those risking the most were the election officials who, despite great personal risks, were trying to make the election possible. They were people like "Mohammed", who worked to set up a polling station and ten sub-stations in Baghdad: "My family asked me many times to quit, but I always tell them it’s not for the money, it’s for the future of Iraq and I’m serving my country. The salary itself is not worth it. It’s only $200 (£106) a month... I took this job because I believe it’s our redemption from all the tragedies and terrorists, and at the end of all this we will have an elected government... Of course I’m afraid, like any other person in Iraq, but I feel a responsibility to my country, to which I’m devoted." Or people like Ziad Al-Dulaimi, "22, an idealistic election worker in Baghdad whose father is Sunni and mother is Shiite, hates his parents' generation for acquiescing to Saddam's authoritarian rule. Al-Dulaimi says now is the time for a fresh start. 'You continue to cling to the present,' he says, after dropping off ballot material in the U.S.-protected Green Zone. 'I'm clinging to the future. Our fathers made the mistake and made Saddam look great. And we paid for it. We don't want to repeat the mistake. Let the men and women die (trying to vote) in order to give new life to the kids'." In turn, among the candidates, the presence of women was perhaps the most notable, even in the conservative Shia areas.

Despite violence and threats of violence, the spirits of many Iraqis proved
hard to break:

"Evidence that at least some Iraqis are willing to risk a great deal for the Jan. 30 election can be found at a small station called Radio Diyala. When the general manager of the station, in eastern Iraq near Iran, began criticizing insurgency efforts to scare Iraqis into not voting and urging Iraqis to participate in selecting new rulers, credible death threats came his way... As a result, he now lives at the station under heavy guard. And reporters at the station, which came under attack again Monday, have paid a physical price for their independent work...

"Shaker Mahmoud, a reporter who suffered minor wounds to his head and legs, said he and others won't let the insurgency intimidate them into giving up their free speech rights. 'Some of my neighbors tell me that I am working for the Americans,' Mahmoud said. 'I tell them that we are not working for the Americans. I am working to defeat the terrorists -- all of them'."
Thanks to Alhurra TV station, the Iraqi audiences (61% of whom watch the channel, according to research conducted last year) were given a chance to witness the first televised election debate in Iraq's history. The three hour program provided a forum for six candidates representing the major parties and lists to explain their political program and answer questions from a panel of Iraqi journalists. German-financed Election Radio also hit in the airways in the run-up to the poll. The program utilized Iraqi correspondents on the ground around the country using MP3 recorders and emailing their segments to Germany for editing and broadcast. Then there were the ad campaigns:

"Amid television ads being shown in Iraq promoting candidates in the nation's January 30 election are those of a different kind -- ones promoting a united Iraqi nation.

"One of the ads, run by a group calling itself the Future Iraq Assembly, shows three armed groups of people -- Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis -- marching toward a crossroad.

"Their angry faces and the banners they hold speak of hatred, anger and a history of conflict and discord. Then, in slow motion, little boys emerge from the back, push the adults away, run toward each other and warmly hug.

"As an emotional Arabic tune plays, the men look down in shame, drop their weapons and greet one another under the Iraqi flag The ad ends with the message, 'Divided We Won't Conquer.'

"Advertisements similar to this have been running on broadcast outlets for several months and are posted on the Internet as well."
More on the advertising campaign here ("By the time the polls open this Sunday for Iraq's historic elections, almost everyone in the country will be familiar with the well-crafted advertising campaign being run by the Independent Electoral Commission and other agencies. There are quick, staccato information bulletins, mini-dramas of national reconciliation, even cinematic epics made with the help of the US occupying forces.") and you can see several examples of Iraqi political TV advertising here. As "Middle East Online" noted:

"Television viewers across the Arab world are being treated to a rare phenomenon ahead of Sunday's landmark vote in Iraq - politicians and their parties taking to the airwaves to woo voters to the ballot box.

"In a region of strictly controlled politics, where there is often only one election candidate or the result is a foregone conclusion, Iraq's political parties have registered a first by venturing into the world of the television ad campaign, with music and slogans and bold promises."
Outside of the airways and on the ground, the campaign itself took many forms. Iraqi blogger Omar reported: "Posters and signs for the political parties and individual candidates are covering almost every single wall on the streets of Baghdad, leaving no place for the terrorists to write their hatred messages (which are by the way full of stupid typos! from which you can tell what kind of ignorants those criminals are) and the elections posters have become so numerous that the terrorists would need to spend a decade rearing them off to find a spot for their ugly slogans."

In the city of Baqubah,
Peace Day was held:

"Local government leaders, sheiks, clerics, former Baathists, and other Diyala Province residents gathered here Jan. 18 to attend Peace Day – an event aimed at quelling violence in the province and encouraging participation the upcoming elections. The event, hosted by Diyala Governor Dr. Abdullah Hassan Rashid al-Jburi drew a crowd of about 150...

"In hopes of separating them from hardened terrorists, local insurgents were encouraged to attend and were offered an opportunity to apply for amnesty for all crimes except murder. About 50 took advantage of the opportunity and signed pledges of non-violence.

"[Brig. Gen. Tahseen Tawfiq Jassen ]Al Haialy read a Fatwa – a religious order – during the meeting signed by the Religious Leaders of Diyala – a group of Sunni religious leaders – which reversed their position on upcoming elections, okaying Sunni participation in upcoming Diyala elections."
In divided Kirkuk, both Kurdish and Arab religious leaders were campaigning strong to motivate their people to come out and vote. Anyone who does not go is a "traitor, ex-Ba’athist and the enemy of the Kurds," was the rallying cry of Mullah Sirwan Ahmad, a Kurd. "Whoever doesn’t go to vote will be cursed by God on Judgment Day," agreed Mullah Teib Abdullah, an Arab. The enthusiasm wasn't just restricted to Muslim religious figures. According to Msgr Louis Sako, Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk: "At Mass, in the homily, we tell people to go and vote... Voting is a national and religious duty that contributes to the birth of a new Iraq, for everyone: an Iraq which is able to develop in vitality... [The elections are] something immense and new... [For the first time Iraqi will] freely choose their leaders."

There were even important endorsements from overseas, including one from the
top Islamic scholar, Sheikh Mohammad Tantawi, the head of the Cairo-based al-Azhar institution who called on all Iraqis to participate in the election in order to form a legitimate government.

Not just foreign moral support, but also foreign assistance has for months been making a difference in preparations for the poll. USAID has been particularly active with training and support for the election infrastructure.
Throughout December and January, for example, (link in PDF) "the Board of Directors of the Iraqi Election Information Network (EIN) participated in a three-day training seminar to help them prepare to observe the upcoming Iraqi elections. EIN is the Iraqi NGO responsible for supervising the information and financial flows between the 5,000-8,000 members of the nation-wide Coalition of Non-Partisan Election Monitors (CINEM)." You can also read about the efforts of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs:

"The midwives of democracy toil behind the towering gray blast walls that encase every Western enterprise in the new Iraq. This one, in an anonymous cluster of buildings, houses the country's first school for political candidates.

"There is a miniature television studio, where novice office-seekers learn the fine art of the sound bite and the value of 'earned media.' There are conference rooms, where instructors from countries that have already left war behind conduct seminars on 'Six Steps to Planning and Winning a Campaign.' (Step 3: Targeting the Voters).

"A graphic artist stands by with advice on getting a party's poster noticed on the cluttered streets of Baghdad. A former congressional staffer stands by to emphasize the vital difference between an army of volunteers and an armed militia."
As the report notes, "in the 13 months it has operated in the country, the institute has tutored political aspirants from all of Iraq's major parties, trained about 10,000 domestic election observers and nurtured thousands of ordinary citizens seeking to build the institutions that form the backbone of free societies."

Alhurra (meaning "the free one"), meanwhile, has been trying to compete with established Arab satellite TV channels. "From a state-of-the-art studio in northern Virginia, the Alhurra network broadcasts 24 hours a day to 70m satellite television viewers in 22 countries across the Middle East. Its special Iraqi channel, featuring regular programmes on the election process and the potential benefits of voting, is also available to terrestrial viewers." Alhurra is often dismissed as just an American mouthpiece, yet "viewer statistics show the channel is being watched by a third of Al-Jazeera’s audience in Iraq. An earlier survey found that at least 20% of satellite viewers in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco and Saudi Arabia were watching Alhurra regularly."

In other news, in an effort to
modernize public administration, "Italy and Iraq have signed an agreement to strengthen e-government cooperation as part of a project aimed at creating an intranet linking some 30 ministries and state institutions... The Italian government confirmed its commitment to the completion of the ongoing government intranet project, which is due to become operational in the next few weeks with the creation of an IT link between the first 13 government ministries... The broadband system uses advanced laser technology and has been chosen for its operational efficiency and security, Stanca said in a statement. The intranet will have a supplementary satellite back-up system."

As part of the process of dealing with the legacy of Saddam's dictatorship, a special centre will be established in Baghdad to
assist families of the missing to find out the fate of their loved ones. By way of background you can read this story on the challenges of the task ahead; as the report succintly summarizes the situation, "estimated 1 [million] missing since 1979; 288 mass graves discovered; only 20 forensic pathologists in Iraq; 700-800 bodies per month require identification in Baghdad alone."

There is also good news as more of Iraq's historical heritage continues to be
recovered: "Three 4,000-year-old marble and alabaster seals looted from the Iraq National Museum and seized by U.S. Customs from an American scholar were returned on Tuesday to Iraq's U.N. ambassador. 'At a time when most news broadcast about Iraq is depressing and negative, it is with great pleasure to mark this important, positive achievement,' Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie told a news conference at New York's Immigration and Customs Enforcement office."

Lastly, there is news that German archeologists might have discovered the ruins of one of the most famous of ancient cities, the Sumerian
Uruk, which is said to contain the grave of the legendary hero and king Gilgamesh.

ECONOMY: Iraqi dinar, which has remained steady at 1460 to $1 for quite some tome, has just a few days ago experienced an
unexpected appreciation, to 1300 to $1.

A lot of assistance is needed to rebuild, reform and modernize Iraqi economy. USAID is now cooperating with the Iraqi government on the
reform of commercial law, as part of its Iraq Economic Governance II (IEG II) project (link in PDF). USAID is also, through its Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA) program, working to support development of private sector in Iraq (link in PDF). Recently, "VEGA awarded its first grant, for $5,000, to a kindergarten in Arbil. Scores of other grant applications are now in process, including more than forty from members of prominent Iraqi chambers of commerce, including grants that will support an education effort designed to help chamber of commerce members secure new construction contracts." 20,000 new businesses have registered with the government throughout 2004 and will be receiving USAID assistance.

In communication news,
the wireless network in Iraq keeps expanding:

"Building a cellular network in a war zone can have its difficulties, but there's been enough success for one of the three carriers operating in Iraq that the company plans to expand even further this year.

"AsiaCell's employees and cell sites have been attacked during construction of the networks, but the attacks subside once the base stations are up because even the insurgents want to have wireless access, according to Phil Moyse, chief technology officer...

"Using equipment from Siemens and Huawei, AsiaCell has built out a GSM network that now has 442,000 subscribers, 99 percent of them prepaid. AsiaCell is the only one of the three Iraq networks with GPRS. By meeting subscriber and other terms of the 2-year licenses, AsiaCell now can expand into other parts of Iraq. Moyse says the company plans on building out cell sites in Baghdad in central Iraq and Basrah in the south. He says as the carrier goes into these new areas it will be essential to use local workers to cut down on the security risk."
In oil news, Iraq's current oil production is reaching 2.4 million barrels per day. The oil minister Thamer al-Ghadban said, in a major understatement, that this total should rise if the "destruction attacks", which in 2004 numbered 200, are halted. To rebuild the industry and increase the production, the Iraqi government has allocated $3 billion from the 2005 budget. "Foreign firms could play a major part in the projects, especially on the supply and engineering side, even if security failed to improve, they said. The projects, which have mostly lacked funding until now, include expanding gas and oil production, overhauling refineries and the pipeline network, building new refineries, developing oil fields and exploration." Says al-Ghadhban: "This is landmark funding that will help us repair damage to the Iraqi oil sector." It seems that many positive developments are just around the corner:

"The Iraqi government that emerges from Sunday's election may open its oil business to foreign investment, and international petroleum companies are jockeying to curry favor with the war-torn country.

"Firms from the United States and Europe -- including Royal Dutch/Shell Group and the Bay Area's own ChevronTexaco -- are literally working for free on certain engineering and training projects to get their feet in the door.

"The companies are forging these arrangements with Iraq's oil ministry to help train Iraqi engineers and study ways to tap more of the country's vast oil reserves, estimated to be either the second- or third-largest in the world.

"Meanwhile, Iraqi officials are drafting a law that would encourage international companies to invest in the country's tattered oil industry, run by the state since 1972. The current finance minister, a candidate in the election, announced the legislation late last month, although he offered few details."
In the meantime, "the Ministry of Oil in Iraq has awarded a contract for the execution of an integrated reservoir study for the Kirkuk field to Exploration Consultants Limited (ECL). Shell Exploration Company B.V... has offered to the Ministry of Oil support for the implementation of this study. Consequently, Shell and the Ministry of Oil have today signed a Letter of Understanding (LoU) to that effect. Shell's technical assistance will bring its extensive experience with production from mature fields, and field developments and operations in the Middle East. The study will be conducted outside Iraq, and is expected to take about one year." To satisfy more immediate needs, an agreement has been signed under which 20 Turkish companies will provide for half of Iraq's fuel needs this year.

the latest snapshot of the reconstruction effort:

"Security- and law enforcement-related projects are use up more than $5 billion of the $18.4 billion. Projects to restore electricity are slated to receive $4.3 billion. Electricity underpins nearly every other industry, including water treatment, irrigation and sewage, oil, and healthcare.

"The security construction projects would include 133 border posts -- none of which has been completed -- 38 military bases, 11 of which are finished; 86 police facilities, 17 of which are set up, and 71 firehouses, only one of which has been established.

"In the electricity center, nine of the 11 planned generation plants are now working; eight of the 15 planned transmission stations are built, and 11 of 44 distribution centers are completed.

"The public works sector is about halfway to its goal, with 74 or 140 planned sites constructed. They include 12 of 24 water treatment stations, 12 of 24 sewage systems, 12 of 17 irrigation areas and 18 of 36 potable water systems.

"There are 183 news schools built out of 569 planned; four of 89 primary healthcare clinics; seven of 24 hospitals, and 26 of 43 public buildings. Another 2,700 existing schools have been rehabilitated, according to PCO data."
As the report adds, "USAID is administering about $5 billion of the $18.4 billion. Through contracts, it is conducting about 8,000 projects throughout the country in all 18 governates. The projects include 34 electrical generation and network improvements, 136 water and sewage systems, 32 transportation programs, and 2,405 rehabilitated schools, clinics and fire stations."

Pentagon's Project and Contracting Office, which so far has been handling the $18.4 billion reconstruction program is now
passing the responsibility to the US Army Corps of Engineers. "Charles Hess, the director of the agency, the Project and Contracting Office, said... that the change was a natural evolution... The gradual shift of responsibility to the Army corps, with its history of managing construction project in conflict zones, had long been envisioned."

In addition to it main purpose, the reconstruction work is also having
positive security spin-offs:

"Sadr City is a case in point, said Ambassador Bill Taylor, director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office. Sadr City was a hotbed of support for militias, and the 1st Armored Division and the 1st Cavalry Division fought battles against Muqtada al Sadr's militia in the street of the area.

"But following the military action, U.S. Army and U.S. government agencies moved in with reconstruction money. They funded projects that hooked up houses to the electrical grid. They funded projects that got clean water to the homes of Iraqis who never had it before. They hooked up sewers so raw sewage didn't run down the middle of the street. 'I took a drive through Sadr City last month,' Taylor said. 'It was a rough area, but now when one drives through … one sees kids in the street waving, and giving thumbs up.'

"Women have benefited from a center built for them near the town hall. And local Iraqis are working on these projects. 'Take a look at the security situation in Sadr City over the past months, and it has been much better,' Taylor said. 'People who don't have sewage in their streets, and when they turn on the switches their lights go on, they are more inclined to go about the business of living rather than picking up a weapon'."
There are currently 1,578 new reconstruction projects under way, an increase of almost 400 since December. Says Chis Milligan, the USAID director in Iraq: "In many of our programs, (the Iraqis are) required to contribute up to 20 percent of the value of the program in either sweat-equity labor or the land... It gives them a stake in something. Before, under Saddam Hussein's regime, they didn't have a stake in anything. They had no interest. That's probably why we had the looting. Now they do have that stake, and there is an interest in protecting the projects as they come on line." USAID has been actively involved with the Coalition forces in this endeavor (link in PDF):

"USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (USAID/OTI) works closely with the U.S. Army First Cavalry Division (1st CAV) to support stabilization activities in Baghdad. USAID/OTI projects mitigate conflict in key Baghdad neighborhoods by generating short-term employment opportunities for underemployed Iraqi citizens.

"In turn, these projects build hope in communities by improving the delivery of essential services such as garbage pick-up and surface sewage removal. In addition, USAID/OTI grants have supported the rehabilitation of schools, primary health care clinics and local markets.

"In collaboration with the 1st CAV, OTI has approved more than 690 grants, valued at nearly $80 million. Grants focus on labor-intensive projects intended to engage as many local residents as possible in activities that improve the quality of life in these districts. Since May 2004, OTI grants have created employment opportunities for an average of 24,000 local residents per month. Projects have been conducted throughout the city, with most grants reaching poor and conflict-prone districts such as Thawra (Sadr City)."
The Iraqi government has set aside $100 million for reconstruction work in Kirkuk. The money will go towards sewage and water system, roads and health infrastructure. Elsewhere, "more than $10 million is being invested in reconstructing and paving almost 200 kilometers of rural village roads in four northern Iraq provinces. The State Corporation for Roads and Bridges, a directorate of the Ministry of Housing and Construction, identified village roads in Diyala, Ninewa, Tameem and Salah ad Din for pavement improvements, in cooperation with local governors... In October of last year, construction work was begun on 103 kilometers with the remaining 97 scheduled to start in coming months. All work is being done by local contractors who are responsible for site surveys, design and site preparation, construction, testing and quality control for all phases of work." As Project and Contracting Office (PCO) Program Manager Andrew Bailey says, "the benefit to the Iraqis is improved, safe road access so that they can travel and move goods and serves to and from the marketplace."

As part of the Security and Justice Sector of the Project and Contracting Office, three
courthouses in the province of Dahuk are receiving a $300,000 renovation. "On December 28 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Dahok government officials opened and reviewed 30 bid proposals received following a December 26 bid advertisement. The work was awarded to three local contractors... Contracts to build four new schools in Dahok were awarded the same day as the courthouse renovations. Currently there are more than 30 projects being conducted in the province."

On a smaller scale, "Japan will provide $220,000 in grant aid to the southern Iraqi province of
Muthana, where Japanese ground troops are stationed for reconstruction assistance, for a project to dig wells to improve local water supply... Four wells will be dug in a desert area of Busayyah, about 200 kilometers south of the provincial capital of Samawah... The aid will also be used to install electric water pumps for the wells and electric power generators."

electricity news (link in PDF): "A new V64 power generation unit at a Kirkuk power facility has come online. The Kirkuk facility is a large substation located north of Baghdad at the site of a major hub for the 132-kV and 400-kV grids. This area is near an existing natural gas pipeline, which was tapped to provide fuel gas to the new gas turbines which are being installed at the Kirkuk site. Gas turbines can be installed with a minimal amount of external infrastructure and are capable of burning a variety of fuels, including heavy oils. USAID's work at the site will bring two new generators online, adding 325 MW of electrical generation capacity to the electrical grid. The recently completed V64 unit has added 65 MW to the national grid. The V94 generator, which will add 260 MW, is expected to be complete in the third quarter of 2005." But it's not just all generators and powerlines (link in PDF):

"Iraq's power generating capability has suffered from the lack of an effective operation and maintenance (O&M) program over many years. Power plants require specific scheduled maintenance, without which, power generating capacity is compromised. This is the current situation at most power generating facilities in Iraq. O&M training for power plant personnel has been limited in the past and non productive.

"USAID's Power Plant Maintenance program was designed to provide for training, facility assessments, coaching, mentoring, maintenance and plant outage support, and furnish test equipment, special tools, permanent plant equipment, materials, and parts. The goal of O&M training is to establish a tradition of best operational practices and modern management techniques at Iraq's power plants. Power plant O&M training covers all aspects of power plant activities, including operations, administration, planning, maintenance, and warehousing. Upon completion of this program in May, the overall operating standards, safety standards, and the reliability of the plant output will be increased. Training is being provided for 250 staff from the Ministry of Electricity and is conducted outside of Iraq."
In water projects (link in PDF), "USAID's projects to rehabilitate water and wastewater plants in Salah al Din Governorate are approximately 60 percent complete. Once finished, the wastewater treatment plant will serve a rural town of 60,000 residents and the water plant will produce approximately 3.8 million gallons per day of potable drinking water." In the capital, "construction work is moving forward on a sewage trunk line in large, poor districts of eastern Baghdad. The trunk line will extend service to some areas that were not served by sewage lines before, and in other areas will replace an old system that was prone to leaks and blockages." Meanwhile in Basra, the work to restore 14 water treatment facilities has been finished (link in PDF): "Over the course of the project, there were many components refurbished: 15 clarifiers, 80 compact units, 71 high lift pumps, seven low lift pumps, nine backwash pumps, 50 pressure filters, 34 gravity filters, 19 generators, and five storage tanks. Additionally, the entire 21.50 km pipeline has been excavated, built, tested, and backfilled for the Khor Az Zubayr to Safwan water line." The project to restore the wastewater collection system in Basra has now also been completed.

In an effort to strenghten Iraqi higher education, USAID's
Higher Education and Development (HEAD) program continues to link up American and Iraqi universities in cooperative ventures that enable the former to assist the latter (link in PDF). One such "HEAD partnership led by the State University of New York at Stony Brook continues to support research libraries at two major Iraqi universities. More than 1,500 archaeology books were previously catalogued and prepared for shipment to the two Iraqi universities." The International Human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI) at DePaul's College of Law is also collaborating with three universities throughout the country to improve the standard of clinical legal education (link in PDF).

In health, work has began on the construction of
Basrah Children's Hospital (link in PDF). "USAID is financing the construction of the new hospital and private sector contributors, coordinated by Project Hope, will provide equipment for the hospital and provide needed training to Iraqi staff. Initially, the hospital design provides for a building of about 15,400 square meters and will accommodate 50 in-patient beds, although this may be expanded to 200 beds in the future. To accommodate the hospital's role as a training site for other Iraqi health professionals, the building's design provides for classrooms, conference rooms, offices, and student dormitories."

And 36 Iraqi doctors are undergoing
additional training in Bahrain and Spain, with more courses scheduled to take place in Austria and Finland. Four students from Kurdistan have completed a three-month "Basic Air Traffic Control" (link in PDF) training program with the assistance of USAID's Local Governance Program (LGP).

In agriculture, USAID will be assisting in rehabilitation of
14 veterinary clinics across the country (link in PDF).

a major trade and reconstruction event is being planned:

"Gateway to Iraq - Exhibition, Business and Investors Summit, an event supporting reconstruction and economic development in Iraq, intends to create awareness of Iraq's vast investment and trade potential. The exhibition will include seminars for Iraq business and job opportunities. Gateway to Iraq will take place in Dubai from June 13 to 16, 2005. The event is being supported by Ports, Customs & Free Zone Corporation, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, and Dubai Naturalization and Residency Department...

"[Says] Iraqi Minister of Interior Faleh Hassan Al Naqib: 'Gateway to Iraq will help consolidate the solid bilateral relationship between the world and Iraq in particular UAE relationship with Iraq, and also create greater awareness of the trade and investment opportunities in Iraq under its free and independent future. We are extremely happy to see that key government departments are playing a major role in this project'."
HUMANITARIAN AID: USAID continues to provide humanitarian assistance to those most in need. Particular attention is given to Diyala governorate where livelihood assets packages (LAPs) and kerosone is being distributed to internally displaced persons (link in PDF).

Vatican, too, is getting on the act: "The Congregation for Eastern Churches is organizing a seminar on rebuilding post-war Iraq, to be held either in Rome or in Amman, Jordan, in October. The meeting will be co-sponsored by Caritas International, the Catholic relief agency, and Cor Unum, the charitable arm of the Holy See."

But, in addition, a lot of the humanitarian effort is a result of private - often individual - initiative. For example, read this story of how a
North Carolina teenager is helping Iraqi children:

"An eighth-grader whose father is serving with the National Guard in Iraq decided to use the separation for some good after learning of Iraqi children without proper shoes or clothing. 'That didn't fly very well in my book,' said 14-year-old Niki Streussnig. 'I never did like seeing someone suffer for something that someone else could fix.'

"So, Streussnig started up the Little Feet Society to send shoes overseas. She began by asking her friends for shoes. Word of the shoe collection soon spread in Grier Middle School. 'Before you know it, we've got more shoes than it takes to count,' Streussnig said. 'It did get bigger than I expected.'

"So far Streussnig has shipped more than five boxes filled with shoes. The first shipment went out just before Thanksgiving. She plans to send out the next around the first of February."
Also helping are children from Muscatine: "Today, a package bursting with soccer balls and best wishes from Muscatine is headed for Iraq. The package is addressed to a group of out-of-state soldiers serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, who may be a little surprised when they see what's inside. It was prepared by Alison Anson's sixth-grade class at West Middle School, a class that's learned more about the Arab culture from Muscatine resident Osama Shihadeh. The students are using that new knowledge in their ongoing correspondence with the troops and the Iraqi children the soldiers have befriended."

Meanwhile, five Iraqi children who received
life-saving heart surgery not available in Iraq, are ready to return home from Bangalore, India.

Last but not least, let's remember it's now often
Iraqis offering their fellow Iraqis a helping hand: "A group of retired female teachers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra are helping the illiterate to read and write free of charge. Despite insecurity they are giving mobile lessons at students' houses. The decision to launch this initiative was made after a child visited one of the retired teachers and asked her to teach him how to write. After that, the teacher spoke to others who had worked in the same field and came up with the idea. Now some 10 retired teachers are reaching out to those who need their help."

THE COALITION TROOPS: In addition to providing security throughout the country, the Coalition troops are also engaged in a number of other activities, helping with reconstruction and otherwise assisting Iraqi people to get back on their feet.

Navy Seabees are one unit which has chalked up many reconstruction successes: "Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 has spent 11 months over two deployments helping rebuild the cities of Ad Diwaniyah in 2003, and now, An Najaf about an hour west." As the report summarizes:

"Last year in Ad Diwaniyah, NMCB 7 performed some of its greatest achievements in a long, storied history. In just over 60 days, the battalion renovated 23 schools, three banks, two fire stations, two power company facilities, two post offices, two bridges, a children's orphanage, an agriculture department building, a railway station and a courthouse...

"In October [2004], a detachment from NMCB 7 was sent to An Najaf to support the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit reconstruction and CMO efforts. During August, Marines from the 11th MEU(SOC) fought door-to-door for nearly three weeks to bring peace a the city that was overwhelmed with Medhi Militia.

"After achieving a peace settlement, the 11th MEU(SOC) worked to rebuild the battle-damaged areas and provide additional reconstruction. The Seabees were the ideal instrument for that in a hard-fought permissive environment. The city is now considered the model for reconstruction efforts and was the first province in Iraq to return control to the local government at the end of November."
Seabees have also been busy on another project:

"On the desolate northern frontier of this city of 600,000, along a lonely strip of blacktop the U.S. troops call 'California,' a group of industrious Navy Seabees have helped local nomads stake a tiny claim on the future of Iraq.

"The 25 U.S. sailors, most from Mississippi but a few from San Diego, have helped local men construct a six-classroom school for 250 very poor Iraqi children outside the city of Najaf, Iraq, about 100 miles southwest of Baghdad,

"It will be the first school for this community of about 500 nomadic Bedouin tribesmen who said they settled in the desert near Najaf to escape the shifting dangers of the war."
More vital assistance for Iraq's number one hot spot is also on the way, thanks to American soldiers: "The Iraqi Ministry of Water and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have combined forces to bring sanitary drinking water to the people of Fallujah. Currently assessments are being performed at four water purification treatment plants and three water towers. The Corps of Engineers is working with the Fallujah Reconstruction Cell, as well as an Iraq Ministry representative to execute $10.3 million dollars worth of water projects. These projects are targeted at rehabilitating and updating the system that provides drinking water for up to 400,000 residents in the city of Fallujah." You can also read this report about how the troops are trying to improve the electricity situation in Najaf.

Sometimes the efforts are on a small scale, yet they make huge difference to those concerned. For example, soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division have completely rebuilt
sewage system used by Iraqi employees of Bayji power station, which is also currently undergoing renovation. "The community was very happy and one plant employee expressed his gratitude, not just for himself but also that his children could now safely play in their backyard. Seeing the kids back outside was the best seal of approval that the public works team could have asked for." And in the town of Wynot, soldiers form Force Danger were conducting a survey and providing assistance to small business operators.

On the health front, Iraqis as well as Americans benefit from access to
emergency medical attention: "New mobile military surgical units provide faster treatment for injured U.S. Marines and Iraqis, says a study in the January issue of the Archives of Surgery. The study examined the effectiveness of six Forward Resuscitative Surgery System (FRSS) teams that treated 30 Marines and 60 Iraqis between March 21 and April 22, 2003." Sometimes, it is needy individuals who receive medical assistance, in many cases thanks to the private initiative of soldiers:

"Hassoun, 45, had not been able to walk unassisted since being surgically affixed with a heavy brace after breaking his leg last summer. The brace was supposed to come off after a few months, but Hassoun couldn’t find a doctor willing to remove it. His leg shriveled as months kept passing and the brace remained on. Things were beginning to seem hopeless. But then he met the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division.

" 'He just seemed like he needed help and wasn’t getting it, so we decided to do something,' said Sgt. 1st Class Fredrick Garnett, a platoon sergeant with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, who was one of the first paratroopers to meet the man.

"Thanks to the persistence and effort of Garnett and his fellow paratroopers from the 82nd, Hassoun underwent a surgical procedure Jan. 16 to have his brace removed and is now on the road to recovery."
Then there is also this story:

"Perking up from her position on a rug in her family's modest Najaf home Friday, 25-year-old Iklas Hakak let out a tiny gasp, a shy smile appearing on her pretty pale face as the Marines walked inside.

"The Americans had kept their promise to bring her a new wheelchair from the nearby city of Karbala. The gift, however welcome, was as much a responsibility as it was generosity."
Iklas was maimed when during fighting in Najaf American shell shattered her legs.

"With her left leg now amputated well above the knee and her right leg ending in a stump just beyond her ankle, the promising young geography graduate could be condemned to a life of isolation in a culture that is hard on women and harder on the handicapped.

"But however bitter Hakak could be toward the Americans who changed her life forever, she showed nothing but gratitude and love for the small group of Marines who visit her often and whom she now says are like family.

" 'I like you very much,' she said in hushed but well-spoken English to Marine Col. Tony Haslam, who personally brought the wheelchair to her on Friday. She gripped his large hand with her slim, soft fingers as she peered up at him with penetrating dark eyes. 'Please,' she said softly, 'don't forget me'."
Read the whole moving story. US troops are also continuing to directly compensate the victims of recent fighting:

"Before dawn Monday, 23-year-old Najaf resident Tahir al Sumbaly dressed in his best sport coat and slacks and took his 45-year-old mother Haifa downtown to seek justice.

"As the sun rose behind a rusty haze, they lined up in a trash-filled muddy lot near the Najaf governor's building along with several hundred other Iraqis and waited for the U.S. Marines.

"Monday would be a pay day of sorts: the last day the Camp Pendleton-based 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit was going to pay cash to compensate Iraqis for deaths, injuries or property damage that resulted from weeks of brutal fighting that ravaged this city of 600,000 last summer."
As the report summarizes, "Over the last four months, the Marines stationed here have paid out more than $8.5 million on 15,000 claims, ranging from bullet holes in shop walls to multiple deaths in a single family." This interesting report illustrates how the compensation scheme worked for one Iraqi family.

Staff Sgt. Dale Wrigglesworth, from the California National Guard 579th Engineer Battalion, is trying together with his fellow guardsmen to help Iraqi children: "If we can win their hearts and minds, that's a step at least toward better things for everybody":

"Because [the soldiers] get so many packages of goodies from their families, he and his unit started taking extra cookies with them on missions to hand out to the kids.

" 'We called it Operation Tooth Decay,' he says. 'We weren't giving them things that would help them. That's when I asked Nicole to help me put something together to give these kids items that are needed instead of wanted.'

"And so Nicole Miceli, a Municipal Services Agency human resources employee, coordinated a drive in the fall. At its end, she shipped six big boxes containing 215 packets filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, paper and writing implements, which Wrigglesworth and his fellow soldiers distributed at a school in a village called Al-Bujalee."
Lastly, read this story of Army Reserve Capt. Katherine Knake of Syracuse, a veterinarian who is caring for Iraqi animals:

"I'm part of a public health team. There are nine of us. We spend a lot of time organizing projects, like a vaccination program for livestock and resupplying the national artificial insemination center for cattle, since most of their equipment was stolen after the war started...

"Part of our job is making sure projects aren't duplicated, coordinating with other international agencies and reaching out to locals. That part is hard. The Iraqi people aren't used to taking care of themselves; they're used to someone telling them what to do...

"My favorite place is the Baghdad Zoo. We're there once a week helping take care the Arabian horses that belonged to Saddam. Horses in the Middle East are prized possessions and give their owners a lot of status. When I look at them it's like I'm looking at part of history, the way things were before. These horses were better taken care of than most people.

"They are such beautiful animals. Once there were 100 horses in the herd and now there are just 19. The rest were stolen after the war started. Or killed by the bombing. I'm teaching the Iraqis at the zoo basic horsemanship. A group from the states called 'Tack for Iraq' is supplying saddles and bridles."
SECURITY: Maybe not such a "terrorist magnet", after all? AP notes that "despite propaganda and anger, Iraq hasn't attracted droves of Islamic fighters from Europe." As the report goes on to say, "the fall of Saddam Hussein in March 2003 and the U.S. occupation of the country would have seemed an opportunity of a lifetime for Muslim men around the world eager to wage their 'holy war' against their arch enemy. Yet the influx of foreign fighters from Europe appears to have been minimal, at least compared with the numbers that poured into previous lands of jihad, or holy war - Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya."

One bomber, attracted from across the border, is having
regrets: "His head and hands were wrapped in bandages and his uncovered face looked like bubbled tar. The young Saudi man told investigators this month that he wants revenge against the Iraqi terrorist network that sent him on the deadly mission that he survived... He was given a preliminary job of driving a butane-gas delivery truck that was rigged with bombs. It wasn't supposed to be a suicide mission. 'They asked me to take the truck near a concrete block barrier before turning to the right and leaving it there. There, somebody will pick up the truck from you,' they told him. 'But they blew me up in the truck,' he says... [He] told the interrogators that he regretted his mission now. 'I want the Iraqi people to live in peace,' he says, and he can no longer support Osama bin Laden because 'he is killing Muslims.' As for the Zarqawi network that sent him on the mission that left him permanently disfigured and in prison, he says, 'I want revenge for what they have done to me'."

Meanwhile, the situation in
Najaf, twice last year the scene of major battles, has improved immensely since then:

"The Marines reinforcing polling places Thursday seemed to worry little about attacks on them or on the polls, driving nonchalantly in Humvees down Najaf's dusty streets, returning waves and greeting locals with 'a salam ilikem' - which means 'peace be with you' in Arabic...

"Free of Saddam and the Baathists, Najaf is experiencing a recent boom, with new trade and rapid reconstruction by the Marines, who have spent more than $20 million there to reconstruct buildings and compensate families after the intense and bloody fighting there in August...

"As the Marines made their rounds from school to school Thursday, throngs of children enveloped them at stops and followed them wherever they went. 'Mista! Mista!' they yelled, flashing thumbs-up signs as Marines passed. 'Good! Good!' even the littlest of them yelled as they ran along the dingy streets in sandals. Others waved and shouted from behind the closed windows of passing cars. Everywhere they went, the Marines received the same warm welcome - a bright contrast to the violence that greets American troops in many other parts of Iraq."
No wonder, as Navy corpsman Doug Debrauwere of the 1st Marine Reconnaissance detachment in Najaf says, "the people here are great." And Cpl. David Meinhold adds, "it gives you a whole different view of Iraq." You can also read additional reports from Najaf here and here.

Even in the dangerous Anbar province - the home to Fallujah - the situation is
far from uniform:

"The concept of democracy appears to have taken root in the dusty town of Karma, a predominantly Sunni community of 75,000 people about nine miles (15 kilometers) northeast of Falluja... Troops from the Regimental Combat Team 7 (RCT-7) of the 1st Marine Division meet with local leaders, sheiks and the people of Karma to try to gauge their sentiment about the upcoming elections. They distribute flyers that read: 'Participate in the elections to build a strong Iraq' and 'Vote! The future is in your hands'...

"[The residents] say they receive their information about the elections from TV and say no one has campaigned or even hung campaign posters in their community. Although most say they don't know who the candidates are or where to go to vote, they say they will vote come January 30."
Slowly but surely, Iraqis themselves are playing greater role in protecting their own country. As the commander of coalition forces in northern and central Iraq, U.S. Major General John Batiste says: "Every day, the Iraqi army, police and department of border enforcement demonstrate their ability to carry out their mission, while relying less and less on their coalition partners... These great soldiers in the battalions in the four brigades in the fourth division are undeterred. Their resolve is incredible. And I know that because I spend a lot of time with them."

A recent report lists major
security achievement of 2004: "In less than a year, Iraqi military ground forces have grown from one operational battalion to 21 – and counting. Iraq's navy now sports five 100-foot patrol craft, 34 smaller vessels and a naval infantry regiment. The country's air force has three operational squadrons equipped with nine reconnaissance aircraft and three U.S. C-130 transport aircraft. And Iraq's special operations forces include a counterterrorist force and a commando battalion."

Despite all the danger, Iraqi security forces have no problem attracting recruits. In mid-January, for example,
1,100 Iraqis have turned up to apply for just 100 new positions in the police force of the Babil province, south of Baghdad. "Marines attribute the surge to increased interest of prominent area sheiks in assuming a greater security and stability role within the province." The success of the recruitment drive builds on other general security successes in the province:

"Repeated attempts to destroy the Rashid station north of Mahmudiyah failed. The most recent came December 12, when Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guardsmen repelled a coordinated attack by at least 10 militants using mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and assault rifles. In a subsequent sweep of the area, 34 suspected insurgents were captured.

"The successful defense of the Rashid station represented an important psychological victory for the local ISF, who were not yet strong enough earlier this year to prevent the insurgents’ destruction of police stations in other south-central cities and towns, including Iskandariyah, Jurf as Sakhr, Haswah and Lutafiyah, according to Capt. David Nevers, a spokesman for the 24th MEU.

"Over the past six months, Marines and the Iraqis they’re supporting have spread out across northern Babil province and southern Baghdad, establishing joint patrol bases in previously labeled no-go zones for U.S. and Iraqi forces."
Read also this report of the Iraqi-American security cooperation at the Syrian border:

"A force of about 500 Iraqis patrols this area of the border. Overseen by U.S. Marines, the Iraqis call themselves the 'Desert Wolves.' Many are former soldiers from Saddam Hussein's regime and most are recruited from Tikrit (Saddam's hometown), Samarra and Baghdad...

"Securing these borders is a priority of Task Force NAHA, based at Camp Korean Village near the town of ar Rutbah. And at the remote Al Walid border crossing, just over two dozen Marines work with the Iraqis, overseeing their inspection of cars and trucks.

"The U.S. military is also supervising a complex of 32 forts being built along the borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. The Marines move the Iraqis into them as quickly as possible, because in the past the forts have been looted and destroyed before they could be manned."
Training of the Iraqi security forces continues to gain pace. "Approximately 900 Iraqi soldiers from the 8th Brigade, 3rd Division graduated from basic military training at Al Kasik Military Training Base, Jan. 16. In addition, 13 soldiers at the base completed a medical training program." 670 soldiers of an Iraqi Intervention Force brigade graduated from training at Taji Military Training Base on January 18. The same day, the Iraqi Training Battalion in Kirkush graduated 878 recruits.

Forty-five students from the
Iraqi Navy and Iraqi Naval Battalion are undergoing a non-commissioned officer instructor course at Uum Qasr. Also, 23 Iraqi Army intelligence officers graduated from a military intelligence training course conducted by the American personnel at Al Kasik Military Training Base. And the first eleven Iraqi soldiers have graduated from signals training.

The Coalition troops are now also conducting joint exercises with Iraqi forces. For example, soldiers of L Troop 3/278th Regimental Combat Team were
training with Iraqi Army at Forward Operating Base Cobra. In fact, under a new policy, half of the American troops stationed in Iraq will be charged with the task of training Iraqi security forces to enable them to get on their feet quicker. The policy formalizes "creative new approaches to training Iraqi forces, developed in the field by lower-level commanders" over the last few months:

"They discovered that if Iraqi forces were embedded with U.S. military forces, they performed better under fire, and their training was round-the-clock. They also saw the level of commitment from the U.S. military to them as they endured enemy mortar and rocket attacks and assaults on training bases side by side. U.S. forces were better able to advocate for the material needs of the Iraqi forces, and to tailor training to their needs. 'Those Iraqi units exposed to (the method) have held firm through the summer, fall and winter,' [a US military] official said. 'A good idea has simply become policy'."
This is one example of how this works in practice: "Abbas, 39, is commander of the 23rd Battalion, 6th Brigade, Iraqi Intervention Force. Shelton, 35, is his senior American adviser. In addition to keeping a photo of Abbas's 4-year-old son, Mustafa, strapped to his left arm, Shelton sleeps five feet from Abbas, eats meals off the same plate and seldom leaves his side. With limited success, he has grown a mustache to resemble the facial hair worn by Abbas and his men. Both men were trained as military divers." This long report gives you the latest on the training Iraqi security forces. You can also read this story of how Marines at the Forward Operating Base Duke outside Najaf are contributing to the process:

"Marines here have been rushing to distribute a long-awaited shipment of gear and weapons over the weekend for members of the four main Iraqi security forces stationed in concentric defensive layers around and inside the polling places.

"The Marines also took a force of 120 specially trained Iraqis through a live fire drill Saturday, teaching them how to kill terrorists at close range with their sub-machine guns...

"The Iraqis were learning more than marksmanship and aggressive combat tactics. They seemed to be gaining some of the basic discipline that has been so lacking among most of the new Iraqi troops."
Read the whole excellent report. The Iraqi security forces also benefit from civilian expertise: "A state law enforcement training officer has a new international assignment. Robert Bodisch is director of programs and curriculum at the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education. Today, he's scheduled to leave for Washington to prepare for a yearlong assignment teaching members of Iraq's fledgling police force how to do their jobs."

It's not just the American, though; "the
Slovak government approved a plan Wednesday to extend its mission in Iraq to training police officers and soldiers." And even France will be training 1,500 Iraqi military personnel.

The arming of Iraqi forces is also progressing. "The
Iraqi Air Force’s 70th Squadron took possession of the first two American-made SAMA CH2000 light air surveillance aircraft, Jan. 17, in Basrah. The Iraqi Air Force will receive two CH2000 airplanes per month – with final deliveries completing the $5.8 million acquisition in the spring of 2005. An option to purchase an additional eight aircraft, on a similar monthly schedule, has yet to be exercised." In another air force news, "Multi-National Forces and Iraqi military leaders gathered at a secure air facility in Iraq to celebrate the activation of the 23rd Iraqi Air Force Squadron. The United States presented three C-130E cargo planes to Iraq in an effort to jumpstart Iraqi airlift capabilities. The large airplanes were overhauled, including a new exterior paint job touched off with Iraqi flags on the tail sections."

There is also a considerable amount of work being done throughout the country to improve the security-related infrastructure. "Alpha Company, Task Force 82nd Engineers have been working since December to complete construction of the Khan Bani Saad
Joint Coordination Center... The 82nd Engineers do the majority of the construction work with local contractors helping to put up concrete barriers, earth walls and reinforcing the building. The JCC is the nerve center for crisis management in the Khan Bani Saad Nahia. With city council, Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, fire department, hospital and MNF representatives all located in the same place, the JCC director and deputy directors can solve problems that arise daily." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division, Southern District, meanwhile, is planning to assist the Iraqi police to renovate 230 police stations in southern Iraq. Says Mark Bennett, Corps police station project manager for Security and Justice Sector: "The local police are very excited about the renovations... You see, they live in these stations when they are on duty, whether it’s 24-on, 24-off or 48-on, 48-off. Right now, these places are truly obsolete. There is absolutely no security whatsoever, no sewer systems, and the buildings are either 50 years old or in that kind of condition. When we go to these places, the local officials are very hospitable and we are very welcome. They come with their ideas and wish lists and we obviously have parameters with what we can spend – but if it is within the parameters, it’s our goal to get them what they need."
In the stories of growing security cooperation between the security forces and Iraqi civilians: "A local Iraqi man helped Marines and Iraqi National Guardsmen (ING)
foil an insurgent attack south of Baghdad on Jan. 14. The man observed three militants placing an improvised explosive device (IED) near a bridge over Highway 8, a key north-south corridor connecting Baghdad and Najaf. The man went to the nearest ING checkpoint to report the incident, and the ING informed Marines passing through the checkpoint." Tips from the public were also extensively used in the hunt for the assassins of the governor of Baghdad. Another small weapons cache was located near Ka'nan as a result of a tip; as the report states, "the Iraqi citizens are now volunteering information more now than ever, which is severely hindering AIF movement and operations." A roadside bomb has been defused after a tip from a local near Mosul. In Haswash, south of Baghdad and at a location southwest of Musayyib, information from the locals also proved critical in arrests and recovering weapons.

In the drive to defeat the insurgency, Iraqis are also benefiting from
modern technologies:

"The tip came in fast, terse and discreet. Maj. Mohammed Salman Abass Ali al-Zobaidi of the Iraqi National Guard scrolled down to read it: 'Black four-door Excalibur. Behind cinema.'

"From cell phone screen to local authorities: Acting on the recent text message tip to the Iraqi National Guard commander, police in a nearby town tracked down a black car behind the theater, and arrested the driver for suspected links to insurgent attacks.

"In the volatile Shiite-Sunni towns south of Baghdad known as the 'triangle of death,' Iraqi civilians increasingly are letting their thumbs do the talking, via Arabic text messages sent from the safety of their homes, Iraqi security forces and U.S. Marines say.

"At a time when U.S. and Iraqi security forces are desperate for information on attacks — preferably in advance — mobile phone text messages allow civilians to pass on information from a discreet distance, their identities shielded from security forces and their neighbors."
Arguably, the greatest security success of the past fortnight has been the capture of Sami Mohammed Ali Said al-Jaaf, described as "Al Zarqawi's most lethal ally"; the terror mastermind's chief bombmaker, thought to be responsible for at least 32 bomb attacks, including one against the UN headquarters in August 2003.

In other recent security successes: the arrest of
50 suspected insurgents, including 17 wanted individuals near Kirkuk; discovery of yet another significant arms cache at Al Montessim; rounding up 25 suspects and weapons near Ad Duluiyah; rounding up more suspects and weapons around Mosul; detention of 36 suspects around Kirkuk, 36 suspects throughout Al Anbar province and 19 near Balad; detention by Iraqi police of a senior insurgent operating an illegal checkpoint in Baghdad; 59 suspects being rounded up throughout the Anbar province; and 42 suspects detained in the Mosul area. Lastly, "in eight separate locations near the Iraqi town of Latifiyah, Task Force Baghdad troops and Iraqi Army Soldiers uncovered a huge cache of weapons, munitions and explosives on Jan. 23... Thousands of small arms ammunition and hundreds of artillery, anti-aircraft and mortar rounds were uncovered west of the north Babil town. Hutton said the task force continues to uncover more munitions in the area, about 35 miles south of the Iraqi capital, putting a dent in any violent plans laid by insurgents."

And lastly, while Ukraine might be withdrawing its troops from Iraq after the election, its security services have made a considerable contribution to Iraq's security by
preventing an $800 million deal to buy weapons and ammunition for terrorists in Iraq.

Aqil Ali Faraj, from Lincoln, Nebraska, rented a van, filled it with friends and drove 800km to Chicago to vote. He had this to say: "It's a good day - better than my birthday... I feel like I've done something for my family, my country, for the future." The election is the birthday of the new Iraq: free, sovereign, and democratic. It's not the end of the struggle against the insurgents and terrorists, but it's the day when the bombers and the assassins have lost any pretence that they are representing Iraq or the Iraqi people. It's also not the day that which magically overnight transform Iraq into a normal country; but it's more one step forward on that journey.


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