Better and worse: a progress report on Iraq

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Andy Bearpark, the soft-spoken Briton in charge of the US-led coalition's reconstruction efforts in Iraq, was detailing an impressive list of achievements Wednesday morning.

Phone services, basic sewage, electricity, and oil production have all improved to near prewar conditions. A nationwide poll found that 70 percent of Iraqis say their lives are going well since the US invasion.

Iraq's infrastructure "is roughly back to where we were before the war,'' Mr. Bearpark says.

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If the US were issued a report card on its efforts in Iraq, it would get high marks in basic reconstruction. But in other critical subjects - security, religious and ethnic stability, employment, and building local democratic institutions - it would take home failing grades.

The lack of security - which keeps foreign investors and aid workers away - was brutally underscored by a bombing a few hours after Bearpark's briefing in the Green Zone, the gated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) compound in Baghdad where the electricity is always on.

A car bomb on a narrow street in the center of the city destroyed the low-key Mount Lebanon Hotel and houses on either side. The US military said 17 were killed, and hundreds were wounded, and it blamed Islamists with links to Al Qaeda. The hotel was home to a handful of foreign guests, including a contingent of executives for an Egyptian phone company building a cellphone network who had departed the hotel after threats the day before. But once again almost all the casualties were Iraqi civilians. The Baghdad blast was followed by a suicide bombing in front of a hotel in the southern city of Basra on Thursday that killed three bystanders.

February was the worst month for attacks on Iraqis to date: five bombings killed 227 people. So far in March, three bombings have killed 201 people, according to The Associated Press.

The increasing tempo of suicide attacks inside Iraq - even as basic services are restored and children return to school - underscores how difficult it is to benchmark US progress here since troops poured over the berm separating Iraq from Kuwait last March 19.

The tide of violence here, and the terrorist attack on Madrid that killed more than 200 people which Spanish officials say was carried out by militants with ties to Al Qaeda, are also costing the US international support. The new Spanish government has vowed to pull its troops out of Iraq soon. In comments published in the newspaper Il Messaggero on Thursday, Italy's European Affairs Minister Rocco Buttiglione said "the war may have been a mistake,'' adding: "Terrorism cannot be defeated only by the force of arms."

Yet coalition officials continue to describe the attacks as strategically insignificant and insist they don't overshadow progress towards returning Iraqi sovereignty, planned for June 30.

A recent poll seems to back up that position. Conducted by Oxford Research International and commissioned by a group of broadcasters, the poll found that 56 percent of Iraqis said their lives were somewhat or much better since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

In part this may reflect coalition successes. According to the CPA, oil production capacity is up to 2.5 million barrels a day from 2 million before the war. Accurate figures for prewar levels are hard to come by because of the secrecy and poor records of the former regime. The Brookings Institution in Washington estimates Iraq's 2002 production was 2.9 million barrels a day.

Electricity production is averaging about 4,200 megawatts a day, slightly lower than before the war. Fixed telephone lines are now at about 700,000 from 833,000 before the war, though lines are now supplemented by roughly 300,000 phones in Iraq's new cellphone system. Cellphone possession was illegal under Hussein.

But there remain large pockets of dissatisfaction and resentment, particularly among the estimated 25 to 45 percent of Iraqis who are unemployed.

Outside the gates of the Green Zone Wednesday, about 200 Shiites gathered in a rowdy but peaceful protest arranged by Iraq's communist party. They vented their anger at the US over coalition plans to evict them from government buildings they've squatted in since shortly after the fall of Hussein's regime.

"The Americans haven't done anything for us, now they're just causing trouble,'' says Khalid Hussein, a unemployed 35-year old. "I don't have any work, prices have gone up, and now they want to put us out onto the street. Saddam was a bad leader, but he never took my house away from me."

Nevertheless, Khalid and his fellow protesters, many waving posters of Shiite religious leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, say they were delighted by Hussein's ouster. But their attitude is: "What have you done for me lately?"

"America is the most powerful country in the world, but they're making our lives harder,'' says Hussein Khadim, who complains that soaring rents after the US invasion ended price controls drove him and his five children to squat in a building on the edges of a Baghdad airport. "They refuse to help us, so of course we're angry."

But it's also true that this sort of demonstration would have been ruthlessly suppressed under Hussein, when posters of Shiite religious leaders were banned and many of the protesters would have ended up in jail. Reminded of these new freedoms, Khadim says they're insufficient. "Where's my job,'' he grouses.

Anger isn't focused on the coalition alone. Increasingly, Iraqis on the streets hold the US-appointed governing council, scheduled to take power on June 30, responsible for their problems. This week, the council asked the United Nations for help in forming a caretaker government to take over between June 30 and when the national elections are held. The date of the elections has not been set. And no one knows whether the current 25-member council, an expanded version of the council, or some other group will rule until then.

The protesters on Wednesday complained that Iraq's politicians aren't accomplishing enough, and it's a sentiment echoed elsewhere.

That leaves Iraq's future as it turns towards elections incredibly murky. In the Oxford poll, the member of the governing council who received the most support as the "Iraqi leader that you trust the most,'' was Ibrahim Jaaferi, leader of the Shiite Dawa Party that was illegal under Hussein.

But he received just 7.7 percent support, with other leaders doing far worse. Ahmed Chalabi, the Governing Council member seen as closest to the US, was seen as "most trusted" by 0.2 percent of respondents.

"The US has been far too slow on reconstruction - they've barely put up a single building,'' charges Yassim al-Musawi, director of Dawa's Baghdad branch. "The key thing now is elections. It's our turn now to decide."

CPA officials like Mr. Bearpark acknowledge job creation to be their toughest task, and one they estimate will take the longest time with both foreign and domestic investment on hold because of the security situation.

Across town at Yarmuk hospital, guarded by a contingent of Iraqi guards with Ak-47s, a more nuanced view of the coalition's half-full, half-empty bind is on offer. Amer Hasan Salman, the hospital's deputy director, says his hospital is providing better care to patients today, on average, than it was a year ago.

"You'd be better off coming to us here with a major medical problem now than 12 months ago,'' he says. "There were hospitals for the Baathists that had equipment that we could only dream about, but for average people, the state of healthcare was very poor."

Salaries have also tripled, though still paltry by Western standards, averaging about $150 a month. Dr. Salman also describes the benefits of working in a freer system, without the fear of spying or arbitrary government behavior that he and his colleagues labored under in the old days. "Before, when I did my job, sometimes I was afraid. We knew we weren't free. Now we come to work just focused on being doctors."

But he also describes a system strained by new demands. Healthcare at Yarmuk is now free for the poor, leading to a surge in patients. There are chronic and unpredictable shortages of medicines, dressings, and oxygen. His surgeons have quickly developed an expertise in treating gun-shot and stab wounds, created mostly by the surge of postwar crime.

Emergency-room surgeon Samir Ali says they're treating about six gunshot or stab-wounds a night, up from about three a month before the war. "I've done 100 surgeries in the past 11 months - that's as many as I might have expected to do in my entire career,'' says Dr. Salman.

Since the end of the war, he's had two patients shot dead in the operating room. After one man died on his table, about 20 family members of the man who shot him surrounded the doctor and forced him to sign a death certificate saying the man had died of natural causes. "I have hope for the future and I'm glad Saddam is out,'' he says. "But I think this shows the sorts of new pressures we're working under."

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