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Iraq: Umm Qasr Provides First Test Of Allies' Ability To Build Post-Hussein Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

The Iraqi port of Umm Qasr has now been under allied control for more than two weeks, making it the first test case for the challenges and prospects of reconstructing post-Saddam Iraq. The town, with a population of just 40,000 people, is making fast progress toward developing its own administration, in cooperation with British occupation authorities. But as RFE/RL reports, getting it back on its feet economically will not be an easy task.

Umm Qasr, Iraq; 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The mood in Umm Qasr has turned from initial suspicion and fear of British troops when they invaded at the start of the Iraq war to a warm welcome after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The British soldiers now routinely patrol the town on foot and without wearing their helmets. Some even feel welcome enough to play with the local boys. Our correspondent saw two soldiers riding yesterday with a crowd of teenagers on bicycles. The only sign it was not simply a group of friends touring the town was the rifles swinging crazily on the two soldiers' backs as they wove down the street.

But if the streets of Umm Qasr have lost the tension which was felt just days ago, the townspeople and the occupying forces have yet to reach any agreement on just what their future relationship is going to be.

The allied forces have said they plan to administer Iraq for an unspecified time -- by some reports up to a year and a half -- while encouraging the development of a new and more democratic government. The townspeople frequently tell reporters they are grateful the U.S. and Britain toppled Saddam Hussein but that they suspect the foreigners really have come to seize Iraq's oil. Some warn that if the soldiers stay too long, their gratitude will turn to hatred.

For now, though, most people here are concentrating on more immediate concerns. Their biggest worry is the looting and continuing theft that broke out when Iraqi security forces fled with the army during the British advance.

Looters sacked the steel mill -- one of the town's biggest employers -- as well as four of the largest schools. Only the port remains fully intact because it was immediately secured by British troops as a future gateway for reconstruction aid into the country.

Today, almost the entire town is out of work. Many people are growing desperate because they have not been paid since their final wages before the war. Prices have gone up for everything as supplies of food and water from Basra, the main regional center, remain disrupted from recent fighting.

Outside the main gate to the dockyards, a crowd of several hundred men waits every day to hear from the British authorities about when they will be able to go back to work inside. The men stand for hours under a merciless sun. When reporters stop to talk, their frustration often explodes into anger. "We need our jobs back. The economic situation is very hard now. We have to buy water, and we don't have any money for that. Managers, laborers, we all need to get back to work," they said.

The men say that so far only a handful of the port's hundreds of workers have been rehired by the British. But once inside, even the skilled workers find themselves being handed brooms and asked to clean the facility. That has sent suspicion coursing through the town that nobody will get good-paying jobs under the new British administration.

British officials say that those suspicions are groundless and that people will progressively get back to work at their previous levels. But they say the process of re-hiring is being slowed by the fact that port salaries are not the responsibility of the British military -- which only has a budget for cleanup crews.

Instead, most employees' salaries will be paid by humanitarian aid organizations. And those aid organizations are still working out which of them will provide the funds and how much to offer for different positions.

The British are providing the civil and military governorship of Umm Qasr. Their headquarters is a former port building that once also served as a hotel for Iraqi intelligence officials.

One of the military's liaisons with the community is Major Philip King. He described the salary problem this way: "We can only give them the jobs that are available right now. The military are a sticking plaster. It's the next wave of organizations that will come through that will start to provide the really big funding to get Iraq back on its feet."

King said the decisions made in Umm Qasr are important for the rest of Iraq because they will be seen as precedents that people in other towns may demand to follow. If aid agencies decide to pay high wages in the port town, they will be held to that scale elsewhere. If they pay low wages, that could spread resentment ahead of them.

The decision making is also reported to be complicated by the fact that Washington, London, and other capitals have yet to determine how much of the money for Iraq's reconstruction will come from the United States and how much from the UN system and affiliated nongovernmental agencies.

A major donor will be the U.S. government aid organization, USAID, which recently opened an office in the port. The U.S. military wants coordination of all reconstruction aid to be in the hands of a newly created U.S. military Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. A senior official from that office, former U.S. General Buck Walters, is in Iraq now.

But many UN and affiliated NGOs are reported to be cautious about working with the U.S. military for fear of compromising their image as independent organizations. These issues may first have to be worked out at top levels before money becomes routinely available for paying port workers' salaries, as well as reconstructing industries like Umm Qasr's steel mill, which was partially set afire by looters earlier this week.

The little port town's problems are miniscule, however, compared to those of larger cities like Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, which have been fully or partially occupied in recent days. But they provide a first measure of just how difficult -- and expensive -- it could be to reconstruct Iraq from the bottom up as massive looting destroys many public buildings and state factories, and cripples power and water supplies.

Looting in major cities has seen mobs walking off with water pumps at pumping stations, cables from power substations, and everything from motors to air conditioners at other facilities. Only private shops and some institutions like hospitals and post offices guarded by dedicated staff have been spared.

The extent of the reconstruction challenge is causing both the British military in Umm Qasr and the town's nascent city council to appeal to the public for patience. The city council is headed by a respected local English teacher who presented himself along with several other prominent citizens to the British authorities shortly after they occupied the city. The teacher pledged to work with the British to rebuild the city.

The English teacher, Najim Abed, is popularly known simply as Ustad (a title of respect) Najim, and many of the town notables are his former pupils. He told RFE/RL that he is telling his fellow citizens that after decades of economic hardship under Hussein, they can afford to wait a few more weeks for a better future. "Most of [the townspeople] are uneducated. They believe that we have a magic switch. Really, we don't have it. So we should be patient. We were patient for 35 years [of Saddam's rule], so [the townspeople] may be patient for 35 days at least," he said.

The British military governor has given Abed and his self-appointed council of assistants considerable power to negotiate with aid agencies regarding how local reconstruction efforts are carried out.

Our correspondent witnessed Abed meeting with UN World Food Program representatives in the British military headquarters. In the informal chaos that reigns in most of Iraq today, he was able to overhear a good deal of the discussion and confirm that the local community has a real voice in the decision making.

The meeting ended with UN visitors agreeing with the teacher's recommendation not to rely on former Iraqi government contractors when reviving local industries or rehabilitating schools. Local former government contractors are widely considered to be corrupt after years of using their strong Ba'ath Party connections to monopolize business and push aside smaller private firms.

It is not clear to what extent allied administration of other towns in Iraq will follow the Umm Qasr model of working with local notables who volunteer their cooperation.

One open question is the extent to which allied forces might cooperate with the former Ba'athist power structure or decide, instead, to carry out a policy of de-Ba'athification along the lines of the de-Nazification efforts in postwar Germany. The choice is complicated because under Saddam Hussein, Ba'ath Party membership was a prerequisite for mid-level, as well as top-level, administrative posts. The degree of loyalty to the party, however, varied greatly among individuals.

Abed himself is a disaffected Ba'ath Party member. He said that virtually everyone who worked in government jobs was required to belong to the party. "All kinds of police, soldiers, teachers, workers, farmers, and all with jobs belonging to the government, had to be Ba'athists," he said.

Now, the mild-mannered English teacher is entrusted with guiding the occupation authorities through the labyrinth of local politics as they seek to identify competent and reliable allies. But the coalition's decision to give power to unelected community representatives carries some risk that those representatives will favor their own friends and -- unless they are practiced politicians -- create anger and jealousy both against themselves and the occupation authorities.

The first 20 candidates for a new town police force -- drawn from former officers and simple townspeople, but all nominated by the city council -- is due to meet today with British authorities as part of efforts to restore security. Abed is also nominating a judge he regards as honest to preside over a court in the town.

A second open question regards what role the exiled Iraqi opposition might play in the occupation administration. The exiled opposition is due to hold a first meeting in southern Iraq this weekend in an effort to stake its claim to the region. U.S. officials have so far promised the opposition no role, saying it will be but one of many voices they listen to in the post-Saddam order.

The potential for rivalries of all kinds to complicate Iraq's reconstruction was fully demonstrated this week by the assassination of two leading Shia clerics in the city of Najaf. The killing of the two clerics by a mob of attackers has sparked a firestorm of accusations that they were killed by supporters of any of a number of rival religious leaders.

One of the victims was Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, who had returned to Najaf from exile in London last week. The other was a cleric reported to be locally reviled for his connections to Saddam Hussein's regime. The two had appeared together in public in a gesture of reconciliation.

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