Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Good news from Iraq, part II 

You've seen the first installment - now prepare for the sequel. Because guess what? There's more good news from Iraq that every day slips under the radar or gets lost among all the bad publicity. So, after the phenomenal response to the first "Good news from Iraq", and back by popular demand, here's more good news from Iraq that you might have missed while reading about prisoner abuse, Chalabi, prisoner abuse, Chalabi, al Sadr, prisoner abuse, bombed out wedding, Chalabi and prisoner abuse.

(I coped some criticism that some of the reports I quoted in the first round-up weren't very current, so this time, with some very small exceptions, the news is from the last few weeks.)

REBUILDING THE SOCIETY: Democracy is moving forward, step by step. "[O]ver time, the councils have been encouraged to get involved in decisions that affect their lives - be they building health clinics, providing subsidized cooking fuel or setting up US-style neighborhood watches against crime - and some progress has been made. Councilors across Iraq have taken more initiative while their US facilitators have grown more passive by design," writes "Christian Science Monitor" (kudos to that newspaper for being the only one to consistently cover the reconstruction of Iraq).

If you're wondering why the process can be sometimes so difficult, bear in mind the price those good civically-minded Iraqis have to pay: "An official at the Baghdad City Council says 52 neighborhood and district councilors have been killed since the middle of last year" (quoted in the same story). Now think what shape the local government would be in your area if councilors were being regularly gunned down. Then spare a thought for the brave Iraqis. And while you're at it, read this op-piece by Mark Steyn about building Iraqi democracy from the ground up.

In other news, Iraq will have its first post-war census. One that won't be used as a political exercise: "Several counts were carried out when Saddam was in power but many Iraqis say they were tempered with in order to advance the ruling Baath party's political and economic pursuits. The results of these counts are now being disputed by Kurds and the majority Shiite Muslims in the country."

With Iraq now freed from Saddam's tyranny, exiles are flowing back in, many of them rich in skills and expertise and keen to pass them onto their fellow countrymen and women - we're talking about people like Maysoon Patchachi and Kasim Abid who are opening a film school to train Iraqi artists.

While we're on the topic of higher education, bet you never heard of a new high-tech Shia university at Hilla, south of Baghdad. "Through a radical program to educate young religious leaders Qazwini [the university's founder] and his students want to make Islam synonymous with tolerance, human-rights and democracy, while they have little time for the Shia establishment led by Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf whose they feel offer little guidance for dealing with contemporary life... 'Some religious people who want to represent Islam want to return us to the Middle Ages'," says one of the students. " 'Islam must deal with the issues of contemporary society. They should focus on today's issues such as globalisation, democracy and modern life'." Are we seeing the beginnings of Islamic Reformation?

Elsewhere in Iraq, efforts to become a normal country continue. In a region where having visited Israel can prevent you from being let into Arab countries, this next Kurdish initiative seems particularly enlightened: "Iraqi Kurdish Jews who migrated to Israel are free to visit relatives in northern Iraq, a Kurdish leader said... 'Muslims and Jews in Iraq were connected through marriage - and those who visit Iraq are not Israeli only but Iraqi Jews'." The report goes to say that "at least 100 Israeli companies are vying to set a foot in the [Kurdish] region" - which would be a first.

Lastly, read about Rasool Sharif, a podiatrist and an owner of the Foot & Ankle Clinic in Naples, Florida, who is traveling back to Iraq, to run for the President in 2005, possibly with Ayatollah Sistani's blessing.

RECONSTRUCTION: How about that economy? "It's the Iraq you don't hear about, one with falling unemployment, rising wages, lower interest rates and higher foreign investment". In fact, the economy is going so well, that hundreds of thousands of Iranians are believed to have crossed into Iraq since the fall of Saddam, looking for work, setting up businesses and buying property.

As always, the Kurd-controlled areas are doing particularly well: "The Kurdish local government in Arbil, run by Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, has drawn up plans for a major facelift of the ancient city. Projects worth $300 million are in the pipeline which, according to the local Municipalities Minister Abdulmuheimen al-Barzani, are expected to turn Arbil into a modern city." Amongst those plans - some of the largest supermarkets in the Middle East. And while the Kurds are going very well, Baghdad is bustling with construction work, with huge demand for building materials driving prices up.

Overall, "[t]he Trade Ministry has registered more than 2,000 Iraqi and foreign firms since the fall of the former regime more than a year ago. The ministry has scrapped regulations the ousted leader Saddam Hussein had issued to give favorable treatment in trade matters to firms and countries supporting his domestic and political agendas. The ministry says it now purse what it describes as 'open door policy' under which all firms, regardless of their origin, are welcome to contribute in reconstructing the country." Oil for Food? What was that?

Some readers took me to task about relying on the official electricity generation figures and targets: apparently the goalposts keep being moved. That might well be the case - but just before you get too self-righteous about the Coalition authorities not doing enough to provide sufficient electricity, bear this in mind: "Across the flat landscape of the southern provinces, there lies row upon row of electricity pylons with their tops broken and bent. Some are the result of sabotage to stop electricity generated in the south of Iraq flowing to Baghdad. Others have been stripped of their copper for resale." Rebuilding the grid is difficult enough without constant sabotage. Then there's also the problem of additional demand, as Iraqis can now afford to buy electrical equipment like air conditioners. Oh, and the fact that terrorists are targeting Western contractors who are trying to rebuild the infrastructure.

The situation is similar with oil production: "There has been a significant rise in attacks aimed at disrupting oil output and exports, the Oil Ministry says. 'Rarely a day passes without a terrorist attack on one of our installations,' the ministry said in a report... Ministry officials say they were hoping to lift output to more than 3 million barrels a day by this time of the year but 'terrorist operations' have scuttled their efforts." Still, there's good news: "The Southern Oil Company has boosted output to 2.1 million barrels a day, the rate it had reached shortly before the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's regime last year. Officials at the company describe the new production level 'a miracle' because the war and subsequent looting and sabotage had wreaked havoc in almost all facilities." A miracle indeed. Memo to the left: after your neigbour's house gets regularly broken into, and vandalised and trashed, you don't complain of your poor neigbour that he lives like a pig.

In other economic news, according to a survey sponsored by the Center for International Private Enterprise (an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) of four hundred small business owners and managers in twenty Iraqi cities and smaller towns, "[a]fter three decades of state domination of the Iraqi economy, small- and medium-sized businesses in that country are poised to rebuild Iraq's private sector." Iraq's small business entrepreneurs overwhelmingly predict a stronger economy in the short term, and are planning to expand.

Meanwhile, the Iraq American Chamber of Commerce and Industry is offering Iraqi businesswomen an opportunity to participate in the Business Internship Program, to help them learn management and business skills while working in the U.S. business environment. Read also this post on how Fullbright scholarships are trying to build better understanding between Iraqi and Americans.

HUMANITARIAN EFFORT: Iraqi education system is being rebuilt - slowly: after years of neglect under Saddam and post-liberation looting, of "14,924 schools in Iraq... 80 percent of them (11,939) need some sort of repair following the looting when the former regime fell. Some 40 percent (5,970) need major rehabilitation and 9 percent (1,343) are in need of demolition or rebuilding." USAID has already spent $74 million through primary education activities and approximately $70 million through secondary education activities on its Year 1 Education Program.

And while we're on the topic of education, foreigners are now allowed to open and operate private schools in Iraq. Under Saddam, foreign schools were expropriated and education nationalised.

Speaking of USAID, it has been working with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund to assists Iraqis in reconstructing their country on literally hundreds of projects. All with almost nil publicity. Why bother about 2,358 schools rehabilitated countrywide or rebuilding key bridges when there's a new photo of prisoner on a leash to be published?

World Bank is also doing a lot of largely unpublicised good work: "In addition to improving the infrastructure on the ground, such as the rehabilitation of 700 schools, the Bank is focusing on building up the country's' human capital, through training programs for Iraqi civil servants, business women and private commercial bankers, and providing policy advice."

The health system, just as the education system, is in similar need for a radical overhaul: "Iraq's healthcare system, once the Middle East's leader, has become the most deprived in the region, according to both Iraq's Health Minister and a high ranking World Bank official... '[T]he country has been pretty well cut-off for the last 10 to 20 years'." However, "the situation could rapidly improve if oil revenues over the next year are directed to boosting health care. In addition, the 2004 budget for health care is now $950 million ($40 per person), compared to $16 million (less than 75 cents per person) in 2002. For the whole country, the WHO estimates that $20 million per month is all that is needed to keep the health system functioning."

While you're at it, why don't you read a bit more about restoring the fragile marsh ecosystems so that Marsh Arabs can return to their traditional ways. Here's how Western expertise and local knowledge make it all happen.

OUR TROOPS ON THE GROUND: No, they don't all torture prisoners and shoot civilians, although you'd be forgiven for thinking that's the case. "This is my third deployment with the 1st Marine Division to the Middle East. This is the third time I've heard the quavering cries of the talking heads predicting failure and calling for withdrawal. This is the third time I find myself shaking my head in disbelief... Nothing any talking head will say can deter me or my fellow Marines from caring about the people of Iraq" - read the whole piece by this Marine intelligence officer.

By the way, if you were concerned about the practice of "hooding" prisoners, spare a thought for prisoners who are not hooded and when released become victims of reprisals by Iraqis who believe them to be members of the old regime: one such man "was seized, tied to a post and had all of his teeth pulled by a baying mob armed with pliers. The teeth were placed in a plastic container and handed back to the man, before he was marched across to where his wife and child were waiting. He was executed in front of them with a bullet through the back of the head." Doesn't make hooding such a bad idea, does it?

Back on the streets, the Coalition forces are under constant threat as they move through "rough neighbourhoods". In response, this: "To placate the nearly two million Muslim Shiites living in a poor Baghdad district, US troops have earmarked $51.7 million to upgrade its devastated utilities." Other units, such as the Alabama National Guard's 214th Military Police Company, have other pursuits in Iraq: "We played a major role in establishing the first Baghdad Police Academy. We succeeded there and we handed it off to others up and running. We graduated three classes of police officers, with 1,000 to 1,500 in each class," says Company's Sgt. Frederick White.

Meanwhile, "Australian troops are winning the battle for hearts and minds in their sector of strife-torn Baghdad by 'adopting' the children of the local kindergarten."

And the actor Gary Sinise, who played Lt Dan in "Forest Gump" had this to say after visiting Iraqi hospitals: "I also saw a beautiful interaction between our Soldiers and the Iraqi children. The kids I saw on my second trip to Iraq with Wayne Newton in November 2003 were loving our Soldiers and were so grateful to them for having liberated them from Saddam Hussein. It was a tremendous feeling to see these children hugging and kissing our Soldiers, cheering them with the thumbs up sign and in broken English saying, 'I love you'... Good things are happening over there [Iraq]. On the nightly news it looks like all hell is breaking loose, but I know, from being over there, there's another side to the story."

SECURITY SITUATION: Fallujah still quiet. And down south, al-Sadr keeps losing ground, withdrawing from Karbala, and being squeezed in Najaf.

This report on another strategy to combat violence: "This week the army tried a new approach to silence Iraqi guns: Buy them. In their first program of its kind in Baghdad, American troops engaged in a weapons buyback program. It began on Saturday and was so popular that it was extended for another two days. By Tuesday night hundreds of Iraqis had been paid $761,357 for 56,536 items, from bullets to assault rifles to mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to the military." How capitalist of the Americans.

Have you heard of a new Iraqi militia called the "Black Flag"? Until yesterday, neither have I. Possibly because they are not anti-American. "Twenty men slinging Kalashnikovs, Sterling sub-machineguns, and an assortment of pistols sauntered down a main street in the Baghdad neighborhood of al-Adhamiya one recent Friday afternoon ready for business. As locals watch anxiously, the men tore down pro-Baathist and anti-Coalition posters, a common sight in this pro-Saddam district. Then they replaced the posters with leaflets of their own, vowing attacks on 'terrorists'." The militia claims it has 5,000 members coming from Sunni, Shia and Kurd groups. Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army coincidently is also said to have a few thousand members, but it gets lot more publicity - maybe Black Flag should start killing Americans.

There it is for now. So thank you, ladies and gentlemen for visiting. Hope you're feeling a bit better. As always, please let me know if you hear of more good news. And while you're at it, don't forget to have a look at my new competition - "Remaking the Middle East" - c'mon, I'm sure you've got some great ideas on how to make that region actually work.


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