BAGHDAD, Iraq—Deep within the Green Zone, the fortified home of Iraq's interim administration, U.S. officials offered an upbeat assessment Thursday of their multibillion-dollar efforts to rebuild the country. Out in the streets of Baghdad, though, it's a parallel universe.
Twenty months after Saddam Hussein's removal from power, electricity blinks on and off. Jobs are scarce. The rat-a-tat of automatic gunfire erupts nearly hourly. Criminal kidnappings for ransom have soared. Parents fear to let their children out for long periods, even to go to school.
Stop just about anyone on the street, and the complaints spill out in torrents.
"The Americans keep saying that they are making things better and better," said Ali Ayad, a 17-year-old school dropout. "If things are getting better, why did I have to leave school to support my family?"
Severe gasoline shortages are further souring the mood in a nation that has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Lines at gas stations stretch for more than a mile. On the black market, gas sells for 50 times higher than at service stations.
"I've been here waiting in this line since yesterday at 9 p.m.—and I'm still waiting," said Kadhim Juad, a motorist speaking at midafternoon. "I'm risking my life waiting for gasoline because of the security situation."
At briefings in Baghdad and Washington, Bush administration officials tout their achievements, saying a tidal wave of U.S. aid is finally having an impact on everything from health care and oil production to restoring marshes in southern Iraq. Some of the behind-the-scenes long-term improvements will improve lives for decades, they say.
"Our work in Iraq, for my agency at least, is the largest reconstruction effort we've undertaken since the Marshall Plan," Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said recently in Washington, referring to the plan for Europe after World War II.
"The Iraqi people are starting to see a difference in their neighborhoods," Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in Baghdad.
By the end of December, Bostick said, Iraqi and American companies will be involved in some $4 billion worth of projects, with $2 billion already disbursed.
Some 120 projects have been completed in the oil sector, such as redeveloping existing wells and improving offshore terminals, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ross Adkins said. Workers are erecting 57 health clinics and renovating 343 schools. They're building 14 sewage plants and overhauling railway stations.
"We are doing large-scale reconstruction projects that are building the backbone of the country," Bostick said, "like your power plants, your transmission lines, your electrical substations, the infrastructure of oil; things that the Iraqi people don't see."
In some cases, even when progress is made, Iraqis can't tell yet.
Take electricity, for example. U.S. money has built 20 power-generating plants, boosting capacity by 1,813 megawatts, or nearly 50 percent, and stretched enough transmission wire to go from "Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and back to San Francisco," Bostick said.
But the existing plants were in such bad shape that Iraqi officials decided to do maintenance on plants with a capacity of 1,400 megawatts, taking them off line—and temporarily erasing the gains from new plants. Most Iraqis still have power for only a few hours a day, sulking in the dark and watching perishable food rot.
"The Iraqi engineers were geniuses at using bubble gum and Scotch tape to keep these things together but they (the plants) were just barely functional," Natsios said.
Bostick said engineers found all kinds of new problems when maintenance began.
"When you open a car that hasn't been maintained in a long time, you find problems you didn't expect to find," he said.
"Is it a difficult time now? Yes it is," he said. But he added that opinion polls show that "Iraqis are all optimistic about the future. They think the future is bright."
Maybe the pollsters overlooked a decidedly pessimistic 32-year-old woman who gave her name as Um Ali. She said the gas shortages had sent food prices soaring.
"The situation has gone from bad to worse. There is no electricity," she said. Her children's safety is a constant worry. "The security is not good. When I send my children to school, I don't feel at peace until they come back."
A few Baghdad residents said they noticed some improvements.
"They rebuilt some schools and some parks for the children. They take care of the hospitals," said Bassim Labib, a 62-year-old grocery store owner. "But the ordinary people do not feel it, because they want security and electricity."
Noting a make-work program for 90,000 Iraqis and other short-term projects, American officials said they wanted Iraqis to sense an improvement in daily conditions.
"As we are working in places not visible to the Iraqi people, on power plants and electrical transmission lines and those sorts of projects, we are also equally aggressively working on the projects that are going to help the people in the towns where they live, whether it is sewage or water or electrical-distribution lines to their homes," Bostick said.
Security is edging up costs, and the turmoil is a constraint. Some 100 Agency for International Development workers and about 360 volunteer civilian workers for the Army Corps of Engineers are unarmed. "We do not want to put them in harm's way," Bostick said.
In some battleground areas, such as the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, the scene of a huge U.S. military offensive last month, rebuilding has only barely begun because workers are still "clearing the rubble, so that the roads are clear and people can move in," Bostick said.
Evacuated residents won't be allowed back all at once, he said, but as one district at a time, while experts ensure that water, sewage and electricity are restored.
(Jassim is a special correspondent in Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.