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Iraq: One Year After The Start Of The War

One year ago, Iraq was on the brink of war, still under the grip of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Dissent was not tolerated, and even the slightest mumble of discontent could lead to arrest, torture, and even worse. News of the outside world was controlled by state-run media, save for a few illegal satellite dishes.

The Ba'ath Party was the only sanctioned political party and membership in it was required if one sought to rise through the ranks. All other political parties were banned, and those linked to a movement opposed to the regime faced certain death. The country appeared crippled from nearly 13 years of economic sanctions, although we now know that the regime continued to get rich off the illegal sale of oil and other corrupt practices. By United Nations estimates, one in eight Iraqi children died by the age of five from malnutrition, a lack of medical care, and poor living conditions.

Even more troubling to some Iraqis is the growing influence of the Shi'a groups and their increasing need to kow-tow to the wishes of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The UN, which had re-entered the country in November 2002 in search of weapons of mass destruction, had left Iraq by March 2003. Hussein appeared defiant and, by some accounts, optimistic, that war would be averted and he would continue his regime's 35-year hold on power. And, should war come, Hussein was confident that his forces would be able to contain and even drive out coalition forces. The U.S. case to remove the regime by force also led to a major fracture within the UN Security Council, with U.S. allies Russia, France, and Germany opposing war in Iraq.

The Iraqi opposition, with the support of the United States, said it was prepared to help usher in a new era of democracy in Iraq. Opposition members claimed to have made preparations in every field imaginable, from infrastructure to human rights. And indeed, when war came in the early morning hours of 20 March 2003, opposition members gathered in the Gulf awaiting permission to re-enter and claim what they saw as their rightful place in the country's new leadership.

So, where does Iraq stand one year after the U.S.-led invasion? Much can be said about the coalition's effort to bring stability to a country wracked by decades of dictatorial rule. Soon after the fall of the Ba'athist regime, the coalition moved to disband the Iraqi military apparatus and bar individuals belonging to Hussein's Ba'ath Party from holding positions in the new Iraqi government. The decision, originally applauded, was later criticized by Iraqi leaders for a host of reasons. Most notably, some Iraqis said that the decision to disband the security apparatus -- the same apparatus that had carried out Hussein's oppression of the Kurds and Shi'a -- ultimately contributed to the destabilization of security in the country. The decision also left tens of thousands of Iraqis out of work, and arguably might have contributed to terrorist attacks in the country. Later moves by the coalition to remedy the situation pacified some critics, yet many remained critical.

The coalition also moved swiftly to install an all-Iraqi Governing Council, comprised of individuals from both inside and outside Iraq, but dominated by those personalities from the diaspora that had forged a decade-long relationship with the United States. By some accounts, those people had no standing or relationship with the Iraqi people. Iraqi Governing Council members by and large, however, have proven themselves to be committed to securing a new and democratic country for their people, most notably in the ratification this month of an interim constitution. The document has been called the most advanced document concerning individual and minority rights to be found in the Middle East.

The council has not been free of criticism, though. Its detractors say that some council members are primarily driven by the desire to consolidate their meager hold on power. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, the council's performance has thus far been nothing short of a success, particularly given the history of the former Iraqi opposition, which was known for its inability at times to agree on even the simplest matters.

The United States has also put enormous effort into rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. Millions of dollars were poured into the economy, and, despite complaints that the repair work was not being done fast enough, electricity and water has by and large been restored to pre-war levels, and has even surpassed those levels in some parts of the country. The dilapidated oil infrastructure, still in need of upgrading, has largely been restored and oil production is nearing pre-war levels. As of this week, Baghdad has exported $6.4 billion worth of crude oil since the fall of the Hussein regime.

The work of U.S. Major General David Petraeus' 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq is noteworthy. In less than one year, the division has trained nearly 20,000 Iraqi civil defense corps units, facility protection security forces, and police, and completed over 5,000 reconstruction projects, including the refurbishment of some 500 schools, plus capturing enemy insurgents and weapons caches. The division was also responsible for killing Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of the Iraqi dictator in Mosul.

There has been progress in virtually every community across Iraq. Local councils have been formed, NGOs are being established, and refugees are returning. In Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), once bitter rivals, have taken steps toward a cohesive leadership. Women across the country have stepped forward to demand their rights, and the media has flourished. More than 200 newspapers have been established since the fall of the regime. The Internet is now widely available. And Iraq has a new currency.

But unemployment and security remain the biggest obstacles to Iraq's recovery. Sixty percent of the population was estimated to be unemployed at the end of the war. A recent survey by the Iraqi Planning Ministry has set the figure at 48.7 percent. And while thousands of Iraqis join the workforce each week, more needs to be done to alleviate the situation.

A survey released this week by Oxford Research International found that 85 percent of Iraqis felt that regaining public security was the biggest priority for their country over the coming year. By contrast, only 30 percent of respondents said that holding national elections was a priority for them. The deteriorating security situation has clearly obstructed the return to normalcy in Iraq. Attacks by unknown militants -- identified alternatively as Ba'athist loyalists, foreign fighters, religious extremists, or even common criminals -- have left the country vulnerable. The violence has struck every sectarian and religious group, with major bomb attacks targeting the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, Shi'ites in Al-Najaf on 29 August 2003 and Karbala and Baghdad on 2 March, the International Committee of the Red Cross on 27 October 2003, and Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan offices on 1 February.

Countless Iraqi police stations have also been targeted. Improvised explosive devices have claimed dozens of victims, and assassinations of local leaders and former Ba'athists continue. Kidnapping and extortion are also on the rise.

Iraqi Governing Council members blame the coalition first for failing to secure Iraq's borders for months, allowing the infiltration of foreign fighters on Iraqi soil; and second, for its dismantling of the security apparatus, which the council claims could have functioned once the top echelon of Ba'athist leadership had been removed. Nevertheless, the U.S.-led coalition continues to capture militants and uncover cells linked to the Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups.

Moreover, in less than one year, the coalition has captured or killed 46 of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime, and built a 200,000 strong Iraqi security force.

There are also growing concerns that terrorist attacks may lead to sectarian violence or even civil war. And, despite claims by some Iraqis that the country would never disintegrate in such a way, one only need look at the contested city of Kirkuk to see how volatile the situation remains. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans are vying for control of the northern, oil-rich city. Each group claims a historical link and a current majority in the city, and tensions have led to bloodshed on more than one occasion in the past year.

Even more troubling to some Iraqis is the growing influence of the Shi'a groups and their increasing need to kow-tow to the wishes of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The moderate cleric, who claims to have no desire to enter the political arena, has nonetheless voiced his opinion on a number of issues related to the future Iraqi state and Shi'a groups have scrambled to appease him. This was especially evident in the surprising last-minute refusal of Shi'a groups to sign off on the interim constitution, because of al-Sistani's reservations about the document.

As the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power approaches, Iraqis should be optimistic about their future. Enormous progress has been achieved in the past year. Problems do exist, and Iraq must still come to terms with the depth and breadth of damage after 35 years of Ba'athist rule. The Hussein legacy is this: 290,000 individuals disappeared over two decades; some 270 mass graves have been discovered, which may contain as many as 400,000 bodies. Compared to the tyrannical future they faced under Hussein, the future of the Iraqi people is bright.

Kathleen Ridolfo is RFE/RL's Iraq analyst.

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