Petrodollars fail to help ordinary Iraqis

Residents complain that the Iraqi government is focusing on cosmetic changes while the US Army funds reconstruction initiatives.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    As part of the $60-million project to revitalize the Airport Road in Baghdad, funded by the Iraqi government, artists were hired to paint a mural, costing $900,000, along an overpass.
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    Exhausted: Hassan Bejawi, who sells ice cream and soda in Baghdad, says the authorities need to do more to help ordinary citizens.
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On the neatly swept median of Baghdad's Airport Road, flowers line the perimeter of a lush lawn. Shiny guardrails flank the highway and workers in blue overalls pick up trash on shoulders where insurgents once placed roadside bombs. These are features of a $60-million project overseen by Baghdad city authorities to revitalize the capital's main artery, which, until the recent decline in violence, was one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.

Iraqi officials and American military officers praise the project as a symbol of reconstruction and revival. But Hassan Bejawi, who sells ice cream and soda not far from the highway, says it is a symbol of waste and mismanagement by a government that has done little to improve citizens' lives. "The government has no role in the community," says Mr. Bejawi. "They only care about their own interests."

Flush with oil revenue, Iraq has budgeted $50 billion so far – as much as the United States – to rebuild the country. This month, the US Government Accountability Office predicted that the Iraqi government could end the year with a $79-billion budget surplus.

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But Iraq has been slow to spend its money. By March, the latest month for which data is available, it had spent only 2.7 percent of its budget, according to a quarterly report released last month by the US special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction. By contrast, the United States has spent nearly all of the money it has appropriated.

The slow pace of reconstruction frustrates Iraqis, who are struggling with staggering unemployment, power outages, water shortages, and streets choked by sewage and trash. Many are particularly exasperated by such projects as the beautification of the road to Baghdad International Airport.

"We need real reconstruction and building, not only show business and changing the surfaces," says Safa Hussein, a Baghdad physician.

Bejawi seconds this sentiment. To get to his shop, he has to climb over piles of rotting trash and hop over a clogged gutter. Since the dilapidated city power grid provides electricity for only one hour, twice a day, Bejawi's business is not doing well: it is hard to keep ice cream cold in 120-degree heat.

"The problem of electricity and garbage has exhausted us," says Bejawi. "For five years we have been living like this."

The highway revitalization project is not the only example of the Iraqi government spending its petrodollars on an effort that does not improve everyday life for ordinary Iraqis.

"There's an awful lot of money that is being dedicated to projects like this one," says US Army Brig. Gen. Robin Swan, deputy commanding general of the Fourth Infantry Division, which is deployed in Baghdad.

For example, in Saidiyah, an upscale, diverse neighborhood in southern Baghdad, the Iraqi government's investment has been limited to trash pickup and the funding of several soccer games between local teams. The Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports supplied jerseys for these games, says Captain Andrew Betson from Midway, Ga., whose 4-64 armored battalion of the Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division, patrols the neighborhood. These efforts seem inadequate in an area that last fall saw vicious battles between Sunni and Shiite militias.

To build up the Iraqis' eroding trust in their government, US forces are encouraging the authorities to launch projects that would "portray to the people that the government is concerned about their welfare," says General Swan.

For example, Captain Betson's soldiers have distributed almost 1,000 grants, each worth between $1,000 and $5,000, to local small business owners since February. The US Army has also sponsored a $75,000 project to install street lights on Saidiyah's main street.

American officers also regularly meet with Iraqi officials, urging them to create jobs and repair the broken infrastructure. But the Iraqi bureaucracy is often slow to approve such projects. To speed things up, Americans end up launching reconstruction efforts themselves, with the hopes that the Iraqis will pick up the bill later on. Meanwhile, US taxpayers continue to shoulder much of the cost of reconstruction.

In Baghdad's Jihad neighborhood, the US is funding a $7-million effort to build a training facility for the public works department, which will train about 400 Iraqis a year in construction work and maintenance. The Iraqi government is supposed to step in next year to employ graduates, pay for maintenance, and cover salaries adds Swan.

But initiatives that are fully funded by the Iraqi government, such as the Airport Road project, are yet to win over Iraqis. Mr. Hussein, the physician, derided the project as a Potemkin village. "The basics of life are not available in Baghdad and over all Iraq," he fumed. "They do [reconstruction] just for the important places through which the government is passing."

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