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Six months after war, Iraq begins fragile turnaround

BAGHDAD, Iraq—More than 200 boys and girls began a new school year this month at the al Nile Primary School in the Iraqi capital's wealthy Mansour neighborhood, freshly scrubbed and neatly dressed.

"I am so happy," said Narwa Mohammed, a 7-year-old girl with short dark hair and wide almond eyes. "The Americans have remodeled our school and painted it for the first time. And now we are promised new books."

As the students talked excitedly about their first day of school since Saddam Hussein's government fell six months ago, a staccato burst of gunfire erupted outside. Several hundred former Iraqi soldiers, protesting what they call mistreatment by U.S. troops, were ransacking nearby stores and burning tires in the street. Terrified teachers and parents quickly ushered in the frightened students.

"They want the children to come to school?" a teacher shouted. "But how are we supposed to have classes in these conditions? The Americans have brought us nothing but chaos."

Six months after American forces drove into downtown Baghdad on April 9 and toppled Saddam's statue before a worldwide television audience, Iraqis are caught somewhere between hope and despair.

The ruling Coalition Provisional Authority has made enormous strides in restoring basic services close to prewar levels, and there has been visible progress toward self-rule as the U.S.-backed Governing Council moves to write a new constitution and hold free elections as early as next year.

Yet Iraq will require billions in reconstruction dollars over the next few years to get back on its feet, and progress is undermined almost daily by terrorist bombings, political assassinations and attacks on U.S. and other coalition soldiers.

Assessing American progress in rebuilding Iraq and establishing democracy makes it clear that achieving the goal will be difficult at best, and will come only if the United States and its allies maintain a long-term commitment that will be expensive and could be politically costly as well.

"In six short months, we have accomplished a lot," L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said Thursday. "But we are also aware that the progress we've made is only a beginning. A quarter-century of negligence, cronyism and warmongering have devastated this country. Profound damage like that will not be repaired overnight."

"If we don't succeed in the reconstruction effort in Iraq, there is a very real risk, indeed, I think a likelihood, that Iraq will become the kind of breeding ground for terrorism that we've seen in other countries over the last 20 years," L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said recently in Washington.

Much has changed in the last six months.

An interim government under the Governing Council is functioning and beginning to work on a constitution. Government ministries and the court system are running again.

Shops in Baghdad are overflowing with satellite dishes, refrigerators, air conditioners and other consumer goods that were illegal under Saddam or impossible to get because of U.N. sanctions. Internet cafes have sprung up on nearly every corner and U.S. officials say there will be 50,000 Internet connections by Jan. 1. There is hope for those who are reveling in the new freedoms.

Yet the distance still to go is sobering. The Governing Council is at least a year away from approving a constitution and holding free elections. Government facilities were badly looted during the war and are in dire need of repair and basic equipment. And ordinary people still can't really enjoy the new freedoms.

The euphoria that followed the invasion is long gone, and many Iraqis find military occupation unpleasant or even intolerable.

"OK, I can watch satellite television now, but what good is it when the electricity still goes off, or why would I want to watch it when I don't have anything for my children to eat?" asked Dr. Zaid Makki, 30, an ear, nose and throat specialist who supplements his $120 monthly salary by selling satellite dishes three days a week.

In the last week alone, U.S. and British troops, along with Iraqi police, have clashed repeatedly with unemployed demonstrators, most of them former Iraqi soldiers and intelligence officers, in Baghdad, the southern city of Basra and several other locations. At least two Iraqis have been killed and dozens more wounded.

"For more than four months, I have been jobless," Mundar Malik, 38, said after a protest in Baghdad last week in which demonstrators burned two cars and threw rocks at a police station. "Every day, I come here to see if I can get a job, and still there is nothing. I just want a job, and I want to live with honor."

The United States has pumped more than $1 billion into Iraq for reconstruction so far under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The military has spent millions in discretionary funds, with American soldiers working quietly during the last six months on thousands of small-scale projects. Bechtel, the giant American contractor, is working on emergency repairs to the infrastructure.

According to figures released Thursday, electricity production surpassed prewar levels as of Monday. Power plants and water treatment facilities are under repair. Sewer and water lines have been fixed. Bridges have been rebuilt. The country's airports and its seaport at Umm Qasr are being upgraded substantially. More than 1,500 schools have been renovated. More than 500 clinics and hospitals have been rehabilitated and restocked with medicines, and all 2,400 hospitals are open. More than 22 million children and 700,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated against disease.

Oil exports are flowing again, with production ranging from 1.8 million to 2 million barrels a day, close to prewar levels. Though vandalism and sabotage remain problems, given the current pace of repairs the coalition hopes to sustain a production rate of 3 million barrels a day by the end of 2004, according to senior officials. Under current internal projections, that's $15 billion worth of oil exports by the end of next year.

"I'd say things are pretty much on target," said Andy Bearpark, the Coalition Provisional Authority's No. 2 man who oversees operations and infrastructure redevelopment. "Things are getting back to where they were prewar, and what's more encouraging is that things are on track to getting substantially better."

Coalition officials plan to introduce a new currency into circulation as early as next week. Sweeping economic changes have been announced to transform Iraq from a socialist to a capitalist economy and attract foreign investment. Public works projects have put 100,000 people back to work in Baghdad in recent weeks, clearing rubble, hauling garbage and other menial tasks. Plans are under way to hire another 100,000 people across the country.

But many big projects have yet to begin. A report released last Friday by the World Bank and the United Nations before a donors' conference scheduled for Oct. 23-24 in Madrid, Spain, estimates that Iraq will need at least $36 billion in reconstruction money over the next four years alone. That's in addition to a separate coalition authority assessment of $20 billion to cover other crucial sectors, including oil and security.

The coalition authority's funding for the year is running out. Without a substantial influx of cash by the end of the month, some officials worry, they might not be able to order crucial spare parts to overhaul Iraq's power plants by next summer, with possible dire consequences.

"My personal view is OK, we got through this summer fine and the Iraqi people have been very patient," said a senior coalition official, who asked not to be named. "But they're not going to be patient next summer if the temperature is up to 30 or 40 (degrees Celsius, 102 degrees Fahrenheit)."

Even now, patience is running thin.

"We know the coalition forces are working, but they are working too slowly," said Ibrahim Obir Ibrahim, a 33-year-old taxi driver, as he waited nearly an hour in a quarter-mile-long line to purchase gasoline. "We'd like to see something more than promises. The Iraqi people cannot be patient forever."

While much of Iraq is relatively stable, stubborn guerrilla fighters bedevil U.S. forces in the Sunni Muslim heartland of the country. Huge areas north and west of the capital are still war zones. Even in Baghdad, roadside bombs explode and shootings occur with alarming frequency.

More than 320 soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began last March. More than 90 have been killed by hostile fire since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations were over.

American military officials acknowledge that the attacks are becoming more sophisticated. Yet Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, prefers the phrase "low-intensity conflict" rather than guerrilla war in what often seems a denial of reality.

"I still firmly believe that there is no popular support" for the attackers, Sanchez said in a recent interview. "(But) what I can tell you is there will be continued attacks on coalition forces as long as we are here in this country."

More than 60,000 Iraqi police officers are back on the streets, but crime and an overall lack of security remain top public concerns. The first battalion of the new Iraqi army graduated basic training last weekend, but a 40,000-man force is at least another year away from being fully deployed.

A civil defense corps and border police are being trained, but much of the country is like a sieve, and hundreds of foreign terrorists and fighters have slipped in. Every time a terrorist bomb goes off or another attack occurs, public confidence is shaken.

The danger is that the sporadic clashes between Iraqis and American soldiers will spawn a broad-based nationalistic resistance.

Last Saturday's riot in the capital was sparked after ex-soldiers waiting for a monthly $40 stipend claimed U.S. troops struck an old man and roughed up other people in the crowd. Many say they are fed up with American insults and indignities.

"We just want them to leave this country because they haven't given us anything they promised," said Motwali Saeed, 32, who lives in the town of Khaldiya, about 45 miles west of Baghdad, where many attacks have occurred.

American troops also face a rising militancy among the country's majority Shiite Muslims, who are finding a political voice after 35 years of repression under Saddam.

Last week, U.S. soldiers exchanged fire with Iraqi police and Shiite militiamen outside a Baghdad mosque during a protest over the arrest of a cleric, allegedly for storing weapons in the mosque. More than 5,000 Shiites marched on Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters Wednesday demanding the cleric's release.

But even as frustration grows, many educated Iraqis fear not the occupation but that coalition troops may leave before a proper government is established and the country is back on its feet.

"If you ask most Iraqi people if the troops should leave, most will say no, we want them to stay," said Hamid al Dulame, a professor of mass media at Baghdad University who spent years in exile during Saddam's regime. "Right now, the American troops in Iraq are indispensable. If they leave, the Iraqi people are going to commit a lot of crimes against themselves. The only thing we are really worried about is civil war."

Bearpark describes rebuilding postwar Iraq as "probably the most important project the world has ever embarked upon."

"If you can get Iraq right, you can move the entire Middle East forward," he said. But if Iraq is allowed to collapse, he warned, "You'll condemn the entire region to a new Dark Ages."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): sixmonths