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Better and worse: a progress report on Iraq

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2004


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.

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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.

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."