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As e-mail touts progress, reality check finds it's not all black and white

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a widely circulated e-mail, an anonymous author poses 16 questions that ask readers if they've heard about specific signs of progress in Iraq that have received little attention from the news media.

"Did you know that 47 countries have re-established their embassies in Iraq?" the e-mail asks. "Did you know that 25 Iraq students departed for the United States in January 2005 for the re-established Fulbright program?"

The e-mail has caused a buzz in the United States. Indeed, it was part of a discussion among Associated Press editors last month about coverage of the war. Some editors said they worried that journalists in Iraq are too holed up in their offices, because of the constant security threat, to get a full picture of the country.

Although many people in Iraq haven't seen the e-mail, officials here have their own statistics and conclusions to add to the debate. Some agree that sectors of the country have improved; others say the improvements are overshadowed by the deterioration of security and basic social services. Still others say that one statistic doesn't always give the fullest picture.

Foreign Ministry officials said that while 47 countries have re-established embassies here, 17 of them have closed again because of deteriorating security. The most visible closures occurred this summer after Egyptian and Algerian officials were kidnapped and killed. Before 2003, there were more than 70 embassies in the country, officials said.

Some points in the e-mail contend that media coverage of Iraq overlooks success stories. The e-mail asks, for example, "Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated, 364 schools are under rehabilitation, 263 schools are now under construction and 38 new schools have been built in Iraq?"

Officials at the Ministry of Education agreed with those numbers, but they said that 4,269 more schools need renovating and that will take years.

"How are we going to disseminate knowledge and enroll students when we don't have enough buildings?" said Esam al Safar, the head of planning at the Education Ministry.

On other questions, Iraqis said there has been marked improvement.

Maj. Khalil Ibrahim Muftin, a former naval officer, said the Iraqi navy has gone from a largely ceremonial unit to one with more responsibility. The e-mail points out: "Did you know that the Iraqi Navy is operational?! They have 5 100-foot patrol craft, 34 smaller vessels and a naval infantry regiment."

Said Muftin: "There is no comparison between now and before because now the Iraqi Navy has new equipment, new buildings, new computers, better communications and better salaries."

Among the most celebrated advancements since the end of the war is the opening of the Baghdad Stock Exchange, which the e-mail noted began trading in June 2004.

Perhaps the e-mail's most debatable point is about cell-phone service in Iraq, which was introduced shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The e-mail asks: "Did you know that there are 1,192,000 cell-phone subscribers in Iraq and phone use has gone up 158 percent?"

Indeed, Iraqis have welcomed cell-phone service. But it's been unreliable. And some Iraqis said that given the current security environment, a reliable service is a necessity. Many parents have given their children cell phones so they can keep track of their families to make sure they're safe.

Kamel al Marayati, an art professor at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, said that half of the students carry cell phones.

And while the e-mail boasts that all of the country's universities are operating, al Marayati said that the quality of education at his university has dropped. Some of the best scholars have left, he said, and admission and education at the university has become more political.

Higher education was better before the war, al Marayati said, "despite all the disadvantages that the former regime imposed on higher education."

Many statistics in the e-mail have appeared on the Department of Defense Web site, and Iraqi officials have often touted the rebuilding taking place. However, Western officials in Iraq concede that it's hard to promote development amid large-scale violence.

In the last three days, for example, at least 200 people have been killed in Baghdad.

Rex V. Jobe, owner of a Texas-based graphics-design company called The Color Place, said he sent the e-mail to a group of friends and associates last month because, despite reading four newspapers a day, he didn't know much of what the statistics recorded.

"There are a lot of positives going on," Jobe said. "The bad stuff gets a lot more response (from the media) than the positive."


(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.