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Iraq's seesaw of progress and peril

A refurbished bridge opens in Tikrit, but poor security and publicity mean few Iraqis are aware of the US-funded success.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2004


When this city on the Tigris River - the birthplace of Saddam Hussein - recently celebrated the reopening of a bridge left impassable by the war, the rededication ceremony seemed complete.

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A ribbon was cut, balloons in the three colors of the Iraqi flag were released, and a US military band played the Iraqi national anthem. Iraqi and US officials assembled in the tar-melting sun spoke of the $5.4 million USAID-funded project as a symbol of the Iraqi-US partnership and the forward march of a democratic, prosperous Iraq.

Only one thing was missing: average Iraqis. With the life of the governor in attendance threatened and security concerns having caused months of delays on the bridge repair - within the last month an engineer and three workers were killed for working on the project - no one could take the risk of inviting the local population.

Yet this is just the kind of effort that many Iraqis say they simply don't see. It's an example of why, some 18 months after the fall of Mr. Hussein and confident promises of progress, many Iraqis are estranged from a US presence they originally embraced.

One American objective in Iraq - and a key aspect of the war on terrorism - was to begin winning Muslims over by liberating Iraqis from a despot and building a freer and better country. But then the US profile shifted from liberator to occupier in the eyes of many Iraqis. Growing numbers of people seized upon the US presence to explain staggering violence, while reconstruction stalled or - as in the case of the Tikrit bridge - went unsung.

Now the question is whether the US, in a supportive role to the appointed interim government, can win back the hearts and minds it has lost.

Views among analysts and average Iraqis vary widely. Some insist the US can preserve goodwill only by starting to draw down its troops. Others fear the US may give up what they see as its historic calling to reform an backward and unstable region.

In between is the position that only a firm withdrawal date will convince Iraqis the US is here in their interest. Even some experts opposed to the US military presence say the US will win here only if it restores security and helps ensure transparent elections.

"No one should expect the Iraqi people to trust the American government's claims and slogans when nothing it promised has been accomplished and the country remains under military occupation," says Nabeal Younis, a noted Iraqi public policy expert who has consulted with American officials since the war. "But I think that if they help reestablish security, rebuild the state institutions, and ensure fair and honest elections, then it is possible to accomplish some of their goals - and to be friends with the Iraqi people."

The US government says it is doing just that. But even some people closely involved with US-funded projects say they are disappointed by efforts to inform Iraqis and to win them over to the reconstruction process. "I don't think it's conducted very well, but it's something that should be key," says Terry Valenzano, program director for Bechtel Corp. on the bridge and other projects.

The US has cleaned up or refurbished more than 2,300 schools, and undertaken thousands of projects ranging from water and sewage facilities and road repairs to new computers for ministries and cropdusting.

President Bush said Saturday that US spending on reconstruction is accelerating and that within the next "several months" $9 billion - as opposed to just over $1 billion now - would be spent. But some analysts note that a growing share of US reconstruction funds is being eaten up by security, while costs like foreign contracting mean that Iraqis aren't seeing a large part of the huge amounts the US is spending on their behalf.

US officials say that even as more "visible" projects like highway paving and school repairs come on line, the plan is to place a high priority on elections slated for January.

With surveys showing Iraqis more hopeful about elections than about the current appointed government, the idea is to have even imperfect elections demonstrate a nascent democracy - and America's role in it.

A key part of the elections focus is to return a US presence and Iraqi government authority to areas of the country that have resisted the US effort in Iraq. The American military recently reinstated a cooperative local council and resumed infrastructure work in the formerly off-limits town of Samarra. Initial results have been mixed, however, with the new police chief having resigned after repeated death threats.