Progress Competes With Chaos in Iraq
This city in southern Iraq saw some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. Yet today the most visible uniform here is not military, but the bright blue overalls of new municipal workers on an urban beautification project. Life, residents say, is getting better.
About 250 miles up the river, near the Sunni-dominated town of Ramadi, the picture is far different: Tense Americans from the 82nd Airborne Division, weapons at the ready, run a checkpoint on a highway that has seen so many attacks it might as well be named “Ambush Alley.” Here, locals quietly applaud each strike on U.S. forces.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 06, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. forces in Iraq -- An article Oct. 19 in Section A on progress and setbacks in Iraq incorrectly identified a military unit. It should have referred to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, not the 173rd Airborne Division.
“They are occupiers,” said 30-year-old Falah Matar, a former Iraqi soldier who now sells used clothes.
But in Basra, deep in the south, Tofeek Majed’s main worry is that the foreign forces will leave too soon. The Shiite Muslim entrepreneur sees them as liberators who have opened the door to his dream of someday turning his Internet cafe into a technical college.
Six months after the war, Iraq feels like a patchwork of separate countries -- a confused mix of stability and chaos, progress and paralysis, the only common denominator being the unexpected difficulty of rebuilding Iraq into a stable society. Extensive interviews conducted over the past week in towns and cities around this nation show that, amid this jumbled picture, occupation authorities are making progress in the reconstruction.
A question central to America’s success in Iraq, however, remains unanswered: Is this progress fast enough?
Nearly everywhere, Iraqis said delivery of essential services such as electricity, potable water and emergency health care is gradually improving. Gas station lines have shortened, more members of the coalition-trained Iraqi police are on the streets, courts have begun operating, and schools have reopened -- many refurbished and newly equipped. Fledgling media have sprouted in many communities, and local and provincial governing councils have started work.
Yet for all the coalition’s efforts -- and for all the Bush administration’s recent attempts to trumpet the progress made in Iraq -- the country remains on its knees economically as violence cripples recovery efforts.
From chaotic Baghdad to the tranquillity of Nasiriyah to the south and Kirkuk in the north, one factor more than any other endangers the nation’s fragile stability: the absence of jobs. Even Nasiriyah’s newly employed municipal workers face an uncertain future. Their contracts are only for two months.
National unemployment is estimated from 50% to 70%, a range that those monitoring developments in the country believe provides a huge pool of idle, discontented men -- all potential recruits for an armed resistance against the occupation that has already begun to undercut confidence in the Americans.
“Nation-building is always a complex issue, but in Iraq, with all the blood that has been shed between different factions, it is going to be especially difficult,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at Sarah Lawrence College who has studied Iraq’s resistance. He argued that attacks by insurgents will increase tensions between U.S. forces and the Iraqi people, sowing mistrust and leading to more home searches, interrogations and traffic-snarling checkpoints.
“The United States is really in a race against time in Iraq,” he said. “The more the violence escalates, the more the reconstruction is delayed and the more difficult the task will be for the U.S.”
Gerges also warned of two nightmare scenarios: a direct hit on an American installation with heavy casualties that would undercut public support in the U.S. for the occupation, or a confrontation with a major Shiite faction that would drive that group to join the resistance -- dramatically broadening the armed opposition to the American presence.
There is already ample evidence that the violence has discouraged new investment and the jobs that would bring. It has also slowed the return of talented, well-educated expatriate Iraqis and driven away groups that usually spearhead recovery, including the United Nations and major nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.
In Basra, occupation authorities say the absence of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has slowed the return of an estimated 400,000 Iraqis from Iran, while U.N. efforts to supply schools in the city have been delayed by the program’s shift to Kuwait. The overstretched coalition military has had to make the deliveries.
In Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, civil affairs team member Sgt. Bill Kennedy from the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division noted the military has been virtually on its own in trying to revive the city.
“One Irish NGO came in to renovate three schools two months ago, but then it pulled out,” Kennedy said. “It’s too dangerous.” His team, which grants and oversees a series of micro-recovery projects financed through a commanding officer’s discretionary fund, delivered supplies to a local school this month escorted by a Humvee, an armored personnel carrier and several armed soldiers who set up a cordon around the school during his time there.
Despite claims by senior members of the civil administration that security has improved, it clearly remains a serious problem. Four Americans and 10 Iraqis were killed late Thursday and early Friday, most in a shootout between U.S. forces and Shiite militiamen in the Muslim holy city of Karbala.
During the seven-day period ending Thursday, resistance elements carried out three suicide bombings in the capital, including one against a hotel housing hundreds of Americans. They assassinated a Spanish diplomat, launched suspected assassination attempts against Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr Uloum, Diyala province Gov. Abdullah Shahad Juburi and an aide to Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi. They also sabotaged a rail line west of Baghdad and an oil pipeline near Hadithah in northwestern Iraq, and lobbed mortar rounds into a high-security area in the capital known as the Green Zone, where administrator L. Paul Bremer III and other senior figures in the occupation reside.
The resistance attacks frequently fall short. In that seven-day period, most of the assassination attempts failed, the mortar rounds landed harmlessly, the sabotaged rail line and pipelines could be quickly repaired, and the suicide car bombings claimed mainly innocent Iraqis who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The resistance also seems to have little ideological appeal. Unlike in the Vietnam War, where a popular nationalist insurgency, the Viet Cong, joined with the North Vietnamese army to drive out U.S. forces, the former Hussein regime members who are believed to be financing many of the attacks stand for nothing most Iraqis ever want to see again. There is also no broad support for those foreign fighters entering from Syria, Iran or other neighbors that historically have preferred a weak Iraq.
Resistance is also concentrated mainly in Baghdad and the so-called Sunni Triangle, an area north and west of the capital where Sunni Muslims are in the majority.
In Kirkuk, despite a bomb attack at a local police station Friday, 173rd Airborne Division spokesman Douglas Vincent joked that the biggest threat he faces is “being swarmed by the kids” -- especially if he has no candy on him. He spoke of a city with open markets, open schools, more power, more gasoline and plans for a five-star hotel and an expanded airport to take international flights.
“They’re going to do the whole nine yards,” Vincent said.
What Vincent calls his “wave survey” indicates a public mood still sympathetic to the occupation in the northern city.
“Here, if I wave at 16 people, I normally get 15 or so waves back, and they’re smiling. In Baghdad, out of 16, maybe I get one back; in Tikrit, maybe two at the most,” he said. “That tells you something.”
It is also calm in Nasiriyah, to the south, where authorities say not one attack has been launched against occupation forces there since the collapse of Hussein’s regime in April. Col. Gianfranco Scalas, the media liaison officer for the 2,800-strong Italian force responsible for the city and its surroundings, said the closest thing to trouble came two weeks ago when tempers frayed among thousands of former Iraqi soldiers after they had waited hours in the sun for a monthly $40 payment.
“We’re studying ways to do this better,” Scalas said.
Despite weaknesses among insurgent forces, those who have studied the resistance believe it poses real and serious dangers to the occupation.
With U.S. casualties accumulating at a rate of three to six dead and 40 wounded each week, there is evidence the deaths have become a drag on military morale. The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported Wednesday that questionnaires completed recently by nearly 2,000 soldiers, Marines and Air Force personnel showed one-third of the respondents rated personal morale either low or very low. Three in 10 believed the war in Iraq was of little or no value to the United States.
The attacks also have raised the cost of occupying Iraq for the United States in terms of money and human lives to a point where they loom as a political liability for President Bush on the verge of his reelection campaign.
The lengths to which the administration has gone to promote Iraq as a safe place was underscored during last week’s trip to Baghdad by Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
At one point, Evans did a television interview with Fox News at the Baghdad airport, one of the best-protected sites in the country. Surrounded by armed guards, including a Humvee bristling with weapons that shadowed his every move, Evans delivered his message to the people of America about the current situation in Iraq: “I’m not fearful [for] my security.”
There seems to be no quick way to create the jobs that nearly everyone believes provide the key to containing the violence.
The country’s aging infrastructure, from sewage systems to factories, is quite literally falling apart after being starved of investment for the better part of a generation. Much of what survived the U.S. assault was further weakened by the waves of looting in the weeks after the fall of Hussein’s government.
In Nasiriyah, Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Joe Joseph awaits spare parts to restart an asphalt plant and a construction vehicle repair facility in the town, both of which escaped war damage only to be severely looted after the major fighting ended.
Electricity shortages remain a key reason why much of Iraq’s industrial base is still idle. Abdul Karim Rawi, governor of sprawling Al Anbar province, which covers most of western Iraq, said he gets enough power to operate only one cement plant in the province part time.
One of his problems: Looters keep stealing the power lines.
Army Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s 1st Squadron, responsible for about 1,500 square miles of Al Anbar’s northwestern region, said looters are hard to stop even though his forces patrol power lines constantly. “Sometimes, we have to shoot at these people,” he said.
Like many American military officers in Iraq, Reilly also grapples with problems he was never prepared to confront. His troops could easily deal with a grenade-tossing Iraqi, he said, but the challenge is persuading the Iraqi not to pick up the grenade in the first place.
And so, the officer trained to achieve his goals with armored vehicles and well-armed troops has opted for other “weapons.” He said he consults with local tribal and political leaders, has opened three employment offices, started a local newspaper and is studying how to get a huge phosphate plant back in operation along with its 3,200 jobs.
“Some days I feel like I’m governor, some days I feel like the employment minister, and now I’m learning about heavy industry,” he said. “We have to revitalize the economy and set up some sort of government. We’re not leaving here until this is done.”