Where to find progress in Iraq

Baghdad shouldn't be the country's only bellwether.

America's media and pundits' view of Iraq has been too Baghdad-centric. This year, they have judged whether the US surge succeeded almost solely by looking at violence levels in the city. Critics also pointed to the Baghdad government's failure to produce reconciliation legislation as a bellwether for the country.

But progress does not have to be measured by the security and politics of Baghdad alone. Maybe it is time to reframe the debate. Maybe the real trend line is elsewhere.

My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is in Dhi Qar Province in southern Iraq. It's a dusty, sparsely populated backwater as far from Baghdad as you can get. It is inhabited by "marsh Arabs," Bedouin tribesmen, and simple peasants, who eke out a subsistence living from the harsh landscape and live in simple one-story structures of adobe bricks, with old cars parked in front. Village boys commonly herd family livestock through the flat, dusty plains.

Dhi Qar's story is much different from that of Baghdad. Almost 100 percent Shiite Muslim, its inhabitants participated in two abortive "uprisings" called by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Now instead of calling for uprisings, Mr. Sadr has ordered his Jaish al Mahdi militia to stand down, and violence has dramatically declined.

Governance and security there have been in the hands of Iraqis for more than a year. The governor and popularly elected provincial council make policy, construct a provincial budget, and implement development plans, while the Iraqi Army and police maintain order. US Army forces are seldom seen in Dhi Qar, while my PRT pursues projects in the area virtually unmolested.

Today, there is no uprising in the air. Instead, the people of Dhi Qar are thinking of different possibilities, such as building up their infrastructure.

On Nov. 10, I attended a conference hosted by the Dhi Qar provincial government. While waiting for the VIPs – officials from Baghdad – to arrive, I mingled with other movers and shakers, including tribal sheikhs in traditional garb, generals in a wide variety of uniforms, and government officials. Some foreign ambassadors were present as well, but the conference was clearly an Iraqi affair from top to bottom.

When the VIPs arrived, they were greeted by a maulvi (cleric), who presented a moving recitation from the Koran, followed by local schoolchildren singing patriotic songs and poets expressing their love for Dhi Qar and Iraq.

This was the first time any Dhi Qar government had hosted such an ambitious undertaking. It provided the security, transportation, and logistics. Baghdad-based officials had usually avoided Dhi Qar, but this time, Vice President Adel Abd al-Madhi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih attended with a large delegation. They acknowledged that Dhi Qar has long been neglected and had suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime. Now, they said, is the time for change.

With the audience settled comfortably in their chairs, drinking fruit juice from cardboard cartons and holding lively conversations, the VIPs made their presentations. The deputy prime minister noted that Iraq's 2008 budget, at $16 billion, would be the largest in the nation's history, and that southern Iraq could receive $3 to $4 billion.

A parade of provincial ministers provided facts, figures, and PowerPoint slides documenting reconstruction projects, including roads, schools, hospitals, government centers, power plants, water treatment plants, canals, and irrigation projects. Slides of future possibilities included a new marketplace for the capital, Nasiriyah, a multistory parking garage, apartment blocks in the city center, and a rebuilt sewer system.

The governor emphasized that his province has come a long way and has a long way to go. He requested more help from Baghdad and foreign donors, for improved irrigation, new schools, paved roads, and improved healthcare.

The conference demonstrated that the formerly powerless people of Dhi Qar are not going to wait for the Baghdad government to pass legislation and move forward on reconciliation. They have begun to assert themselves and assume their rightful role in Iraq's political setup.

After years of violence, insurgency, and uprisings, the current window of relative peace may present an unprecedented opportunity to move ahead economically and politically. Provincial people and their governments appear determined to grab this opportunity and run with it, with or without the government in Baghdad. And that is a legitimate sign of progress for the country.

Jon P. Dorschner is a career foreign-service officer and the Iraq provincial affairs officer in the Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Dhi Qar Province. This piece was subject to State Department review.

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