Thursday, June 10, 2004

Good news from Iraq, Part III; bigger and better than ever 

Welcome to the third installment of the ever-popular "Good news from Iraq" segment. The news from Mesopotamia hasn't been too bad lately, with the successful UN resolution, countdown to sovereignty, and the new Iraqi government generating a lot of good-will throughout the world. Still, the prisoner abuse, terrorism, kidnappings, and casualties otherwise continue to crowd out and overwhelm any of the good news you're read below.

To get you started, check out this piece by Pejman Yousefzadeh, who discusses the good, the bad and the ugly of the mainstream media's Iraq coverage. Also, by way of overview, this from ABC News:
"Most thinking these days on Iraq is decidedly pessimistic. Part of that is traditional political/intelligence 'worst case analysis.' Part of it is a very justifiable fear of the unknown, because the surest thing to be said about Iraq's political future is that it is unknown. Nevertheless, here's a more - but not completely - optimistic view."
RE-BUILDING THE SOCIETY: Democracy continues to grow from roots up:
"The Baghdad City Council, largely a mix of previously apolitical technocrats, ranging from sheiks to secularists and from lawyers to engineers, has become a power in its own right. Council members were selected by their neighbors almost a year ago, and after first focusing on their neighborhoods, have since started to speak out on national issues."
Meanwhile, Western institutions and individuals continue to give practical assistance to Iraqis; for example lawyers from Nothingam University in the UK, who in week-long seminars are training Iraqi officials in how to build human rights programs. Or Kristi Gruizenga, a U.S. State Department specialist stationed in Baghdad, who advises female Iraqi politicians: "These Iraqi women are so brave, so smart and well educated, so motivated. They know they're making themselves targets for terrorists, but it doesn't faze them. This shows the Iraqi people are taking ownership of their country." Or a retired US Navy commander, who is converting a former secret police facility into a first-class camp for Iraqi Boy Scouts.

Iraqis want their own domain code ".iq". According to the Iraqi chairman of the National Communications & Media Commission, Siyamend Othman, "the .IQ domain name would allow Iraqis to stake a 'virtual flag' in the worldwide Internet community. It is 'an important tangible and symbolic milestone for this nation, as well as the freedom and hopes of the Iraqi people'." Only 6% of Iraqis have access to the Internet, and fewer than 2% use it regularly (about 12% have a computer, though), but the progress is good after Saddam's years.

And let us not forget the humanitarian problem that doesn't exist anymore: in the first quarter of 2004, 92,679 applications for asylum in the West were lodged; this represents a 16% decrease on the previous quarter and a 25% on the same quarter in 2003. The reason? "Iraqis and Afghans comprised the two biggest asylum groups in 2001 and 2002, but their numbers have dropped dramatically since then. The number of Iraqi asylum-seekers in the first quarter of 2004, for example, was 2,143 - 81 per cent below the figure from the corresponding period last year." That's what's called solving the refugee problem at the source - the only method that really works. Meanwhile, more than 11,000 Iraqi refugees looked after by the United Nations have returned home since July last year.

Let me close this section with the words of an Iraqi blogger:

"Under Saddam, we had no dreams. We only had nightmares of wars, which still haunt me even though I left Iraq 10 years ago. After Saddam, everyone could dream. When you dream, you know you are alive. When you dream, every moment of life is worth a fortune.

"Under Saddam, we had no tongues. We were silent ghosts. We couldn't trust the people around us including us, who live thousands of miles away from Iraq. After Saddam, we have tongues. We have freedom of speech. We have scores of newspapers. We have more than 40 blogs that range from extreme left to extreme right."
In case you were wondering if it was all worth it. "The new government is [also] thanking America and Bush. Why are the media silent?" asks the "Opinion Journal." Indeed.

THE ECONOMY: Efforts continue to arrange for the forgiveness of at least a part of the $120 billion debt raked up by Saddam Hussein. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq's new finance minister is confident that up to 90% of debt will be written off. While the United States is pushing for 80-90% forgiveness, guess who is against a "massive cancellation"? Yes, that's right, our friends the French. No wonder they preferred Saddam in control in Iraq. Meanwhile, Australia will forgive a $420 million debt owed by Iraq for past wheat shipments.

In May this year, Iraqi Central Bank was established, with full independence, to oversee the emerging banking system. "Inflation last year averaged just under 35%. It has fallen considerably since then. There are signs that an economic recovery of sorts is taking place, the Economist Intelligence Unit report for April forecast a strong recovery in growth of around 60% of GDP this year and about 25% next," the story also notes.

In other economic news, the Coalition policies are bearing fruit: "The coalition introduced a new currency, cut taxes and customs fees, reopened banks and helped the interim government put together its budget. Iraqi bazaars are brimming with imports: satellite dishes, air conditioners, computers, refrigerators and other goods. Authorities say 300,000 new cars have entered the country over the past year." The new finance minister is optimistic: "There is no doubt security affects economic development but it doesn't cancel everything. There is relative calm in many regions in Iraq and we can start several projects." Employment and vocation centres are springing up, too, to train Iraqis to give them skills to take advantage of reconstruction opportunities.

According to the Middle East business confidence index, surveying over 800 businesses and individuals based or working in 14 countries in the region, "60 percent said they would expect their company to generate at least some extra business in Iraq, with 13 percent of those saying Iraq would be their company's most important foreign market in 2004." Even Israelis are getting on the bandwagon, slowly but surely.

The oil sales, meanwhile, had recently hit the $10 billion level - all money set aside for reconstruction of Iraq. Indeed, the Iraqi authorities have already resumed full control of their oil resources, weeks ahead of the transfer of power: "[T]he most important natural resource has been returned to Iraqis to serve all Iraqis," said Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

In order to keep the oil flowing, the Iraqi Oil Ministry is setting aside $800 million to boost production and increase security. Says the Minister: "We have a force of 14,000 people [of a "security force made up of locals from each hotspot and tribesmen"] and we are expanding. If things go well, we want to sustain an export figure of two million barrels a day in the coming months." The Minister is also hoping that the production will reach 3 million barrels per day at the end of the year, and "[e]ventually, we will be looking to produce even more and finally take full advantage of Iraq's extraordinary reserves," the second largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, a Japanese company has signed an oil deal with an Iraqi enterprise for the first time since the end of the war; as part of the deal the Japanese will make "improvements to oil-related facilities at oil-shipping ports facing the Persian Gulf and repair run-down oil fields in the southern part of Iraq."

Outside Sulaymaniya, "a futuristic glass and steel building is nearing completion against the unlikely backdrop of the rolling Kurdish countryside" - a $40 million first commercial airport in Kurdistan, built on the airfield that Saddam had used as a launching pad for his chemical weapon attacks against the Kurds in 1988. Elsewhere in Kurdistan, Irbil, "the capital of the north, is abuzz with activity. A huge Toyota dealership, as big as any in the United States, is about to open near a striking, 165-room hotel that could soon be part of the Sheraton chain. In the thriving city center, work is under way on four, 25-story towers that will house hundreds of stores and offices." Still in Kurdistan, the demand for telecommunication services outstrips demand:

"These are busy days for Jaksi Mustafa, chief accountant for the Iraqi Kurdish communications company Korek Telecom. Some 60,000 clients have applied for a new SIM card since the beginning of May, and he has 40,000 to sell - at $100 apiece. 'We're rarely out of here before 9.00pm,' he sighed, pointing to the crowds gathered outside his office in central Irbil, and to the piles of application forms cluttering his desk."
Read also this story of Tony McDonald, Australian Treasury official, who "between losing his room in the hotel Al-Rasheed to a rocket attack and working himself to the bone... helped transform the 'gangster economy' of Saddam Hussein's regime."

RECONSTRUCTION: Having restored services and infrastructure to pre-war levels (just in the past couple of weeks, the authorities and contractors "finished a $64,000 courthouse renovation in Maysan; completed the $1 million refurbishment of Basra Technical College; handed over 3,000 donated medical textbooks; reopened dual two-lane bridges between Mosul and Irbil; and converted a key power plant from hard-to-get diesel to more plentiful crude oil"), the reconstruction effort is entering its second phase. David Nash, the retired U.S. admiral now in charge of Iraqi reconstruction,

"will oversee 2,300 projects to be completed over four years: new and repaired bridges, roads, power plants, transmission lines, hospitals, schools, police stations, army bases, airfields, refineries, rail stations, town halls, wells, irrigation canals, water-treatment plants, sewers, prisons, ports and a phone network. To help build goodwill, U.S. military commanders around the country will have their own $500 million kitty to draw on to fund local projects."
And Otak, Portland, Oregon-based design and engineering firm had opened two offices in Baghdad and Erbil to train Iraqi engineers, architects and other specialists to assist in the reconstruction of their country.

The authorities have earmarked $2 bln next year to rehabilitate the national electricity grid. The electricity delivery still leaves a lot to be desired, not least due to continuing sabotage. Lt. Gen. Faris Rasheed al-Bayati, who heads the Electricity Grid Protection force,
"is now trying to mobilize as many Iraqi tribes as possible to join his force. He says he has struck deals with 250 tribes whose elders have pledged to protect lines and installations in their areas. Under the deals the tribes will be fined for loss or damage inflicted on electricity lines in areas within their writ... Bayati's force has pledged to equip the tribesmen with arms necessary to fight the saboteurs. His force will soon be supplied with 12 helicopters to guard pylons crossing the desert in remote areas."
In Baghdad, thanks to the US, which has given $278 million, the World Bank, with $33 million, and the finance ministry with $12.5 million, the Municipality can now spend more money on reconstruction and vital services - this time without political favouritism, which in Saddam's days meant that "[w]hile rundown areas like Shuala and the former Saddam Town, currently Sadr City, suffered and looked like any of the Third World’s worst slums, smart districts mushroomed with some resembling those of Paris and London."

And at the Baghdad airport, Iraqi civilian air-traffic controllers are taking over the tasks from Australian and American specialists. Air safety over Baghdad must have improved somewhat since before the war, when Saddam ordered windows on one side of air traffic control tower to be painted over so that the staff wouldn't be able to look down on him in one of his palaces.

THE SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE: Huge challenges lie ahead for the education system; after years of Saddam's misrule and misallocation of resources, "one-third of Iraqi men aged 15 and older -- and more than one-half of Iraqi women -- are illiterate... 40 percent of the country's schools are in need of 'major rehabilitation' and almost 10 percent 'in need of demolition or rebuilding'." But the transformation is already on its way, as one new headmaster observes:

"When the school year started, there where no books. So what I did is have the students lend each other books, because the students are from the same neighborhood. [Education authorities] have brought us new books now. It's the same topics, but the books are printed in a better way. Most of the pictures [of Saddam] have been removed and any that [could not be because of their placement in the text] are taken out by the students. When [one student] saw a picture [of Saddam], it was like he was having a nightmare, and he started tearing it away."
In addition to physical infrastructure, The Iraqi children are getting their new textbooks, for the first time without Baathist propaganda, as the World Bank is providing $40 million to print 72 million textbooks for 6 million students: 600 titles for all 12 grades of the primary and secondary system. This is part of the commitment to give the new generation of Iraqis a fresh start; as the Iraqi education minister, Aladin Alwan, says "the school texts with racist and sectarian overtones will disappear off school shelves and in their place there will appear ones having universal values related to 'religion, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, justice, equality and tolerance'." That's surely a good start for the whole region.

The health system also continues to revive, in part due to assistance given by Western humanitarians like Gary Selnow, and a group of 30 American doctors trying to build morale among Iraqi physicians. But bear in mind the price that brave Iraqi medical workers have to pay to be able to help their fellow citizens:

"Health officials and doctors estimate that as many as 100 surgeons, specialists and general physicians have been abducted from their homes and clinics since the beginning of April. Some were beaten and tortured. Most were released after the payment of between $20,000 and $200,000 in ransom. Ransom, it seems, is not the only motivation for the crimes. In many cases, abductors have ordered the physicians to leave Iraq, sometimes setting a deadline. Iraqi officials fear that the abductions and threats are an organized attempt to cripple the country's healthcare network, likening the tactics to terrorist attacks on the country's oil pipelines or electricity plants."
Puts it all in a perspective, doesn't it? Meanwhile, a group of Iraqi surgeons is starting to perform reconstructive surgery on a group of 3,500 former Iraqi soldiers who had their ears cut off under Saddam's orders for desertion.

And read this story, of a 10-year old partially blinded Iraqi boy who might recover his vision thanks to the efforts of a Japanese photojournalist killed in Iraq. And about an 8-month-old Iraqi girl with a possibly fatal growth in her neck who is receiving free treatment at the Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

COALITION FORCES AND THE LOCALS: They don't all get shot at, blown up, or hauled before court martials for torturing prisoners. And they have a lot of good news to report - but why would anyone want to listen to some nefarious Pentagon propaganda?

SFC Loren Kickland and SSG Morgan Muller from Nebraska talk about the commercial explosion (that's the best kind) and the growth of civilian traffic on Iraqi streets; bad news for environmentalists, good news for ordinary Iraqis. Sgt. Brad Cory from Florida comments on the growing prosperity, as Iraqis earn a day what they used to earn in a week under Saddam, and a reservist Erik Jacobs sees the revival of Iraqi spirits: "Instead of funerals we started to see weddings." Capt. Jami Kahne from New Jersey tells how American children from her home town collected school supplies for their Iraqi peers: "I never left the village without lots of hugs and lots of kisses," after her unit "renovated three schools, wired them for electricity, built desks and soccer goals, and finally handed out pens and pencils, notebooks, glue and other supplies to the Iraqi children." And this, from Lt. Col. Gregory Politowicz from Pennsylvania, stationed in Kurdistan: "They don't hate anybody else, they focus on getting their kids an education and they stick by the rules."

Read also about the Marines from the 1st Marine Division who, together with the Spirit of America charity, raised $80,000 to buy essential audio and visual equipment to help build unbiased Iraqi media infrastructure. And about the Marines and Navy SeaBees who are conducting trade school for Iraqi men. Says LtCol John Lutkenhouse about the "Tools for Iraq" initiative:

"We are initiating a training program to teach Iraqis trade skills with Seabees as instructors. Upon course completion, we plan to issue the graduate his tool belt so he is now armed to apply his new skills, earn a living, and assist in the rebuilding of his country. The instruction will last 6 weeks."
And see this gallery of photos that you won't find in the mainstream media.

SECURITY SITUATION: Al Sadr's uprising is winding down, private militias are getting demobilised.

Read this story of one of the faithful, a Kurd: "Mohammed Jumaa fought against Arab insurgents in Fallujah long after many of his Arab comrades in the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps quit working with U.S. Marines fighting in the Sunni Muslim city."

Despite past disappointments, the US Army continues to train a special Iraqi division to fight terrorist after June 30:

"A surreal scene is unfolding at the Taji army base. Two Iraqi men fire a rocket-propelled grenade at a passing army truck sending up a huge plume of smoke.

"From what appears to be the wreckage, a US soldier emerges and walks over to correct their firing posture. 'The first shot was good,' he says. 'Make the next one better'."
Meanwhile, there's reconstruction going on in part of Iraq that al Sadr has recently chosen as his battleground with the infidel occupiers:

"Karbala's leaders have stepped up efforts to revive the economy. Mr. al-Saud, the governor, said his staff and the coalition officials had spent the past few days discussing how to proceed on reconstruction. Ayatollah al-Modaressi said he had sent word to Iranians that it is safe to visit Karbala again.

"Faced with the prospect of losing their livelihoods, the restaurant's staff and management came to a decision: They would work night and day without pay to fix up the restaurant. After seven days working 18 hours a day, they managed to open for business. On Saturday, a trickle of customers - mostly locals - came in for lunch."
Al Sadr himself came under increased criticism from fellow Shias - this from Sheikh Qassem al-Hashimi, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI): "The leadership of the Mehdi Army has been infiltrated by Baathists and terrorists and we have a list of their names. You [militiamen] will have no one to blame but yourselves and we will not come to your aid if the Americans kill you one by one."

And in Saddam's birthplace, Tikrit, attacks are down and spirits are up; according to Gen. Batiste

"All the work we're doing with respect to quality of life, infrastructure improvement, setting up the Iraqi security forces is phenomenal. We're spending $62 million in a short period of time on projects to help the people. They see it coming, and they like it. There is a change of attitude in the northern provinces."
As for Fallujah, read this piece by Brendan Miniter on the ground in the "triangle": "the city of 200,000 is relatively quiet, and there's little reporting on why." And a Marine stationed outside Fallujah writes how the insurgents, with their violence and criminal activity, are slowly but unintentionally winning the propaganda war for the Americans.

THAT'S ALL, FOLKS, FOR NOW: Click here for part one and part two of "Good news from Iraq". While you're at it, why not check out "All in the same EU-Boat", for all the news that prick the bubble of European moral superiority.


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