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It's Getting Better All the Time . . . By: Nimrod Raphaeli
MEMRI.org | Thursday, October 09, 2003


Violence and terrorism in post-war Iraq, while a legitimate subject for the press, often overshadows the progress made in the region. Statements by Iraqi officials as well as a number of editorials published in Iraqi and Arab newspapers would indicate that the situation in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, has been steadily improving. Last week's decision by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to reduce the number of night time curfew hours to four is an indication of growing confidence in Iraq's security. Certainly there is a sense of optimism about the future, confirmed by a number of polls taken in Iraq in recent months.

Polls in Iraq

A number of public opinion polls have been taken in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam regime to measure the primary concerns of Iraqis as well as their level of optimism. While the validity of the results in a country whose people are unfamiliar with freedom of speech may be questionable, the polls reflect a sense of optimism about the future.

In one poll, the Saudi daily Okaz asked people if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "Iraq, and the people of Iraq, are today better off than they were in the past." 66 percent of the respondents "strongly agreed" and another 17 percent "agreed." Only 17 percent disagreed. One hundred percent of respondents disagreed with the statement: "It is possible that Saddam Hussein will return to govern Iraq because he is preferable to the Western coalition." In analyzing the results of the poll, the paper concluded that a majority of Iraqis are pessimistic about the conditions in the short term, but optimistic about the long-term situation. [1]

In another poll - this one taken for the American Enterprise Institute by Zogby International - two findings are particularly significant:

  • Iraqis are optimistic. Seven out of 10 say they expect their country and their personal lives will be better five years from now.
  • While they may not like being under occupation, 59 percent of respondents would give the occupation forces and, by extension, the CPA, the additional time of one to two years to initiate political and economic reforms.

Another interesting finding is that an overwhelming majority of respondents oppose an Iraqi government patterned after the Islamic Republic of Iran. [2]

Pride in History

To comprehend the significance of these polls' findings, it is necessary to understand the historical perspectives of the Iraqis. Iraqis take great pride in the long history of their country, the source of the first comprehensive legal code in the history of mankind, the birthplace of Abraham, and the center of a great historical civilization. This history often provides Iraqis a source of hope and optimism. An editorial in the independent daily Al-Iraqi states:

"We are people who own the secret of existence and immortality, and history is a witness to that. Baghdad has fallen tens of times from the Mongolian invasion [in the 13th century] to the American occupation. But it has been revived with the help of Allah and the will of its good and honest children." [3]

The weekly Al-Ghad, published by the Iraqis for Medical and Humanitarian Aid Association, wrote, "Our tomorrow is bright in spite of the enemies, because tomorrow is shaped by Iraqi hands, sweat, and hard work. We are people who learned how to cry and to overcome adversities despite a painful yesterday… It is our duty to cooperate in a sincere manner with everyone else and to abandon self-centeredness…." [4]

Failure to Understand Iraq

The independent daily Al-Shira' maintains that sabotage acts "are not only the result of an American security failure, but also the result of a political failure to understand in a timely fashion the strengths and weaknesses of Iraqi society. [This failure] has led the American administration to disregard the heritage of Iraq completely… and deal with it as if [the country] is no more than a branch of the Ba'ath party…" [5]

In the same vein, Al-'Adala, which is published by the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, maintains that the CPA "is dealing with the situation in Iraq as if it were dealing with a 'banana republic.' It postpones what does not serve its interests and promotes what does." L. Paul Bremer's highest priority since his arrival in Baghdad, the paper asserts, has been "to sign contracts with American companies that contribute to President Bush's re-election fund, while the last of his priorities has been to deal with security issues starting with the apprehension of the remnants of the deposed regime..." [6]

Accomplishments on the Ground

Freedoms Restored and Re-Established

The most palpable change in Iraq since the demise of the Saddam regime has been the restoration of freedom and dignity to the Iraqi people. For the first time in more than 30 years, there are no torture chambers and no arbitrary arrests or executions. For the first time in that many years, one does not have to be afraid to confide in a friend: in the past, such a person could have been an informer for the regime.

The Iraqi press publishes uncontrolled and uncensored. The Iraqis, who are avid newspaper readers, can choose from among more than 100 dailies and weeklies which cover subjects from Islamic fundamentalism to Kurdish nationalism. These newspapers and weeklies are free to write on any subject and in any style as long as it does not incite violence. Some of these papers are independent but many are associated with political parties and groups that have been growing since the fall of the old regime.

Related to the freedom of the press is the spread of Internet coffee shops which were forbidden under Saddam. Similarly, satellite dishes, also prohibited in the past, are now sold in large numbers. Iraqis can listen to views other than those of Saddam or those sanctioned by his information ministry. Owning a satellite dish in the past meant six months imprisonment or worse. Cellular phones, which were allowed only for members of the regime, are now commonly used.

Most of the phone exchanges were damaged by war or destroyed by looters. As a result, telephones do not work in many parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. According to Minister of Telecommunications Haidar al-Abbadi, new telephone exchanges have been ordered and phone service is expected to be restored in Baghdad within two months and to the rest of Iraq by the end of the year. [7]

Freedom of religion has also returned to Iraq. The Shi'a, who are the majority in Iraq, can practice their religion without fear of punishment, and their clerics can take any position that suits their personal temperament or political predilection.

Schools Will Impart Knowledge, Not Ideology

Four and a half million students started school on October 1, 2003. Schools had been looted of everything from computers to desks and chairs. In an interview with Radio Free Iraq, the director general of the ministry of education said there were 11,000 schools in Iraq and 84 percent need rehabilitation. The process has begun. With the help of USAID, UNICEF and NGOs, 350 schools have been rehabilitated at a cost of $2,000 to $7,000 per school, and efforts continue. [8] Also, for the first time, students will attend school without having to sing the praises of Saddam or recite Ba'ath party slogans. [9]

Preparations are also underway to provide at least one nutritional meal a day to 2 million students between the ages of 6 and 12. The meals will include biscuits, canned cheese and meat, in addition to milk and eggs. [10] Electricity and water have been restored to most schools.

Since new textbooks did not arrive in time, old textbooks are used, although pages referring to Saddam and the Ba'ath party were removed. Nevertheless, there remain many Saddam-era items. For example in the reading book for third graders there is a chapter titled "Valuable Things," referring to valuable things students bring to school. It reads: "A girl brings a watch; a boy brings a picture of Saddam." But old habits die hard. When an American general visited a school just renovated by the U.S. military, a seven year girl stood up and cheered "Long live the Leader" before she realized her mistake. [11]

The Security Situation

Among the many polls taken in Iraq recently, there was one conducted by the Iraqi daily Al-Nahdha, which is associated with Dr. 'Adnan Al-Pachachi's liberal movement. The poll asked 1,000 men and women over a four day-period in the second half of September whether they thought Baghdad has become a dangerous city. 47.3 percent said no and 46 percent said yes. Those who said yes pointed out that following the looting of government offices, the looters turned their attention to residential areas. Those who responded no mentioned the presence of Iraqi police on the street and the restoration of the emergency telephone line 104 (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.). [12]

"For a thousand years," wrote the Iraqi daily Al-Watan, published by the Iraqi National Movement, in an editorial titled "Painstaking Efforts and Visible Improvement in Security:" "Baghdad has been under either domestic or external siege. And now Baghdad is free and is open to the world, but there are forces trying to put it back by destroying what is left of its infrastructure and by propagating fear and chaos." The editorial added: "the Iraqi citizen has begun to feel that the security situation has taken a powerful step forward when the Iraqi police force began to play a more noticeable role than before. The citizen is feeling that police presence close to him will assist him when assistance is needed…" [13] In the words of a shopkeeper who sells television sets and refrigerators: "Things have really changed since the end of July. In July we saw three or four robberies and killings a day. I don't think I've seen one since July." [14]

To bolster security, the first contingent of 29 Iraqi women graduated from a four-day training program to serve as guards. They will join a force of 1,500 guards assigned to the Ministry of Water Resources. [15]

The Restoration of Electricity

Electricity has been restored to its pre-war level but there remain some shortages and interruptions. An editorial titled "A Lit Spot - Electricity is Restoring its Health," published in Al-Watan reads: "Quietly, and without introductions or declarations, electricity has returned to an almost normal situation. No one has asked himself or others: How was electricity restored to this level? Was it the work of a magician or a holy warrior who specializes in these matters? The important thing is that electricity is no longer an exception but a normal thing. We hope that it would continue to be a dear guest in our homes, businesses, offices and streets, God willing, [thanks to] the efforts of those [who are] loyal." [16]

Car Registration

Tens of thousands of new and used cars entered Iraq after the war without duty or registration. The traffic police introduced a system to check all cars and to provide proper registration and new tags. While the wait is long, once the drivers enter the registration area the process moves quickly, efficiently, and without bribes. One driver said, "It is true that that we have been waiting from the early hours of the morning. But as soon as we entered everything moved with great speed." He added: "I hope that the state agencies will one day perform at this level." [17]

Political and Diplomatic Normalization

Iraq is a country under military occupation and, as such, can not formally exercise the full rights and privileges available under international law. The daily Al-Nahdha noted, "There are indications that there is a serious change in dealing with the Iraqi issue both on international and Arab levels." [18] In fact, Iraq has registered a number of accomplishments in the foreign affairs and diplomatic fields. The following are examples:

  • Iraq was provisionally admitted to the Arab League and the Iraqi Governing Council has been recognized by a number of Arab countries, publicly or implicitly.
  • The Iraqi delegation to the United Nations occupied its seat and the outgoing president of the Governing Council, Dr. Ahmad Al-Chalabi, delivered a speech before the body. [19]
  • An Iraqi representative was present, for the first time in years, at the September OPEC meeting at the ministerial level held in Vienna.
  • An Iraqi delegation attended the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund held in Dubai, September 24-25. Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoom, the Crown Prince of United Arab Emirates, which hosted the meetings, told the London daily, Al-Hayat that it is the duty of Arabs to help with Iraq's reconstruction. [20]
  • The Organization of Islamic States, comprising 57 Muslim states, declared its support for the Governing Council and called for meeting the needs of Iraq. [21]

Many Problems Remain

The Iraqidaily Al-Qasim Al-Mushtarak aptly captured the essence of the situation in Iraq. It wrote: "The Governing Council has had positive achievements externally; however, it is still running in place domestically." [22]

While much progress has been made there are still serious problems in Iraq. Utmost on the minds of Iraqis is what is referred to as "runaway insecurity" (Al-infilat Al-amni), dramatized by the bombing of the United Nations compound, the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakir al-Hakim, and the assassination of Dr. Akila al-Hashimi, one of the three female members of the Governing Council. While most Iraqis do not blame the U.S. for these events they do tend to blame it for failing to restore order in some parts of Iraq where former supporters of Saddam reside. [23]

Economic Issues

Recently there has been an enormous increase in commercial activities. In the absence of tariffs or the need to bribe customs and other officials, Iraqi merchants have taken advantage of every opportunity to flood the markets with consumer goods, including many high ticket items such as satellite dishes, television sets, refrigerators, air conditioning units, etc. Perhaps most significant is the flooding of the market with automobiles imported from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. However, other economic activities remain stagnant and unemployment high.

Under the title "The Negatives of Liberty" Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed (independent) wrote that after the fall of the old regime, "many Iraqis expected the gates of heaven were about to open…. [Some Iraqis] expected that the demise of the old regime would make liberty possible but we hear about it only in news bulletins." The paper goes on to say that many Iraqis believed "that the Americans would start new projects for the reconstruction of Iraq after the end of the war… It is painful to realize that all these projects are ink on paper and were granted to bankrupt American companies to revive the American, not the Iraqi economy." [24]

Hoshyar Zibari, the Kurdish foreign minister of Iraq, believes, like many Iraqis, that security can be achieved only with the improvement of economic conditions and progress made toward the restoration of national sovereignty to Iraq. [25]

Setback in the Resumption of Flights

Missiles firing at planes over Iraq's two major airports, Basra and Baghdad International Airport, put on hold attempts to resume commercial flights between Iraq and the outside world. It is estimated that there are between 3,700 and 10,000 shoulder-fired missiles known as Sam 7 which are unaccounted for. [26]

Conclusion

The defunct daily Al-Aswaq, which was the organ of the Iraqi Industry Federation, provided a balanced conclusion to this survey: "We agree that the Governing Council is not perfect… and where can one find a perfect government? But the beginning is good… and though some criticism is justifiable… isn't it better to assist the Council in doing its job than looking for reasons and justification to make it fail?" [27]

ENDNOTES:

[1] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), July 14, 2003.

[2] The Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2003.

[3] Al-Iraqi, September 20, 2003.

[4] Al-Ghad, September 21, 2003.

[5] Al-Shira', August 23, 2003.

[6] Al-'Adala, September 4, 2003.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 29, 2003.

[8] Radio Free Iraq, September 22, 2003.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 29, 2003.

[10] Baghdad, September 28, 2003.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 3, 2003.

[12] Al-Nahdha, September 26, 2003.

[13] Al-Watan, September 23, 2003.

[14] The Washington Post, October 5, 2003.

[15] Al-Zaman, October 1, 2003.

[16] Al-Watan, September 16, 2003.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 1, 2003.

[18] Al-Nahdha, September 10, 2003.

[19] Al-Zaman, October 5, 2003.

[20] Al-Hayat, September 20, 2003.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 2, 2003.

[22] Al-Qasim Al-Mushtarak, September 18, 2003.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 29, 2003.

[24] Al-Iraq Al-Jadeed, July 7, 2003.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 27, 2003.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 1, 2003.

[27] Al-Aswaq, July 26, 2003.




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