Monday, September 15, 2003

BAGHDAD — Ahmad Mokhtar broke down in tears three times as he watched his office building and life’s work go up in flames.

The Western-educated technology expert at the Ministry of Trade had spent 35 years designing databases, a craft he imparts to his university students as passionately as a philosophy professor might divulge the secrets of time and existence to his proteges.

“I lost my whole life’s work,” he said. “I try to keep myself very busy. I try to forget.”

But though his files, papers and computer programs went up in smoke, Mr. Mokhtar and most of his 30,000 fellow ministry officials have in the months since the end of the war gotten back to work, using warehouses, silos and a floor of the U.S.-protected Ministry of Oil building as offices.

To his relief, his biggest project — a massive database containing the names, ages and addresses of every Iraqi used for distributing food under the oil-for-food program — had been backed up elsewhere.

“Once we restored this database, we could easily resume the food rationing,” he said.

Aided by a cadre of well-educated, highly skilled Iraqi technocrats, the reconstruction of Iraq is plodding ahead through the rubble of war and the dust of neglect.

The challenges are complicated and numerous. In their near-daily press briefings at the Baghdad Convention Center, officials of the American-led coalition dish out details about the reconstruction effort’s successes.

“We’re light-years ahead of reconstruction compared to Kosovo,” said Charles Heatly, the most visible spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupying power.

But Iraqis themselves have many complaints, particularly about the pace of the reconstruction effort.

“They’re doing well, but they are terribly slow,” said Mohsen Shanshal, an Iraqi businessman and former adviser to the Iraqi Central Bank. “What could be done in one week is done in one month.”

Coalition officials concede the process could be moving faster but say it takes time to rebuild institutions ravaged by time, political repression and war. When the coalition forces entered Iraq, for example, there was not a single police officer on the beat.

Putting competent cops back on the streets is a painstaking process. “It’s not just a matter of hiring them, it’s a matter of training them as well,” said Mr. Heatly, a Briton who speaks Arabic fluently.

Iraq’s reconstruction needs are vast. Its utilities, public safety, transportation, health care, education, military and energy sectors need revamping.

But the bombing of the U.N. headquarters Aug. 19 has frightened off many foreign companies — even ones headed by Iraqi expatriates.

Security is the biggest problem cited by Iraqis and international staff of companies and aid agencies.

On Wednesday last week, a civilian employee was killed delivering mail for the U.S. Army as part of a contract with Kellogg Brown & Root, a Halliburton subsidiary.

The employee was the second KBR employee killed in one month, underscoring the dangers for private firms taking part in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Foreign investment is still barely a trickle. Other than the mammoth and politically connected American companies Halliburton and Bechtel, only “brave and stupid” entrepreneurs have been willing to risk Iraq’s political instability and violence, said Richard Galustian, a consultant for one of the 20 private Western security firms operating here.

Even getting into Baghdad is a challenge. Roads are filled with armed bandits.

Coalition officials have balked at resuming commercial flights, partly out of fear that one of the many shoulder-fired missiles looted from Iraqi military barracks after the war could bring down an airplane full of foreign investors.

At least four rockets have already been fired at approaching aircraft, said Col. Guy Shields, a coalition spokesman.

Mr. Galustian said 8,000 of about 10,000 surface-to-air missile launchers remain unaccounted for. “I’d rather take my chances on the road,” he said.

Coalition forces have attempted to ramp up security by quickly building new Iraq policing and safety institutions to replace the ones washed away in the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government.

The coalition has already put 37,000 new Iraqi police and 11,000 fixed-site security guards on the streets and in front of buildings throughout Iraq.

It has placed 13,000 Iraqi border guards, Customs officials and immigration officers at Iraq’s frontiers. It has recruited more than 1,000 soldiers for Iraq’s new army.

It is also in the process of standing up an eight-battalion civil defense force that will maintain order in the ethnically and religiously divided country.

Still, even U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, overall commander of military forces in Iraq, has said he doesn’t have enough troops to prevent all outbreaks of violence.

“I have sufficient forces to accomplish the missions that are currently assigned” to the military, he told reporters Thursday. “But there are some security challenges that are looming in the future that would require additional forces.”

Those challenges include securing Iraq’s borders, fending off terrorist groups or armed militias and stifling outbreaks of civil conflict that could hamper reconstruction efforts.

Security has become an obsession for both Iraqis and foreigners since the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. building.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, “it was better because I could work 24 hours a day,” said Dhia Farid, a CD vendor in a fancy Baghdad neighborhood. “But now I have to close at 10 p.m. because of the curfew and the crime. I’m losing business.”

The security problems have a ripple effect through the economy and the reconstruction efforts. In Washington’s vision for rebuilding postwar Iraq, oil revenues from Iraq’s vast reserves were supposed to fuel Iraq’s growth. But sabotage and looting have degraded Iraq’s already fragile oil infrastructure.

Not only have suspected Saddam loyalists damaged pipelines, causing massive oil fires, but some Iraqis — organized into criminal gangs — have been tapping into pipelines and refineries to steal fuel, which they smuggle abroad to other Persian Gulf countries. The siphoning means that drivers in one of the most oil-rich countries in the world must wait in long lines for gas because of shortages.

Electricity remains a persistent problem. Power is intermittent, functioning for an average of 12 hours in every 24 in Baghdad. That in turn contributes to the fuel shortage as more people buy gasoline to power huge, noisy generators.

Coalition officials blame Saddam for failing to invest in Iraq’s infrastructure over decades of his rule. Indeed, during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam spent 100 percent of the nation’s revenues on the military, plummeting the once-rich country into debt.

“We inherited an appalling legacy under the previous government of massive under-investment,” Mr. Heatly said.

But ordinary Iraqis are fed up with the lack of electricity, and they blame the coalition. Riots erupted in Basra earlier this summer as heat-addled residents demanded more electricity.

The coalition responded by quickly bringing in fuel to power generators and putting in place a political response: To quiet the unrest, the U.S.-appointed governor of Basra established a committee that included coalition officials, engineers and community leaders.

Coalition officials often boast that Basra gets better quality water than it did under Saddam. But that’s assuming the water gets to people’s homes and businesses. Electricity shortages mean that water pumps and treatments don’t work, as well.

The coalition is making some effort to establish an effective private sector. It has helped revamp a 1,300-stall marketplace in Baghdad in a project that will likely provide jobs for 800 laborers.

“You can see the amount of economic activity, the consumer activity just walking along the streets,” Mr. Heatly said.

More comically, the coalition recently organized a conference at the Baghdad Convention Center to connect Iraqi businessmen with foreign investors, but a tight security cordon prevented many from entering. Those who managed to get through the complex series of checkpoints found only other Iraqi businessmen.

In less flashy but more concrete ways, American forces have been steadily pumping money into local economies. Military commanders have already spent $69 million on projects in their areas of operation.

In the Najaf area, for example, the Marines have launched 1,400 projects totaling $5 million on projects such as rebuilding a cement factory, rehabilitating an amusement park, refurbishing schools and repaving roads.

A project to rebuild Iraq’s irrigation canals and networks has employed nearly 100,000. All these projects,coalition officials say, put cash in the hands of poor Iraqis and help local contractors build up fledgling businesses.

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