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Iraq: Survey Shows Reconstruction Efforts Making Progress

As the U.S. plans to speed up the handover of power to a sovereign government in Iraq, it also is stepping up the pace of reconstruction efforts designed to boost the country's economy and social stability. A recent review of those reconstruction efforts shows progress being made in several key areas, including the formation of Iraqi security forces and the provision of essential services.

Prague, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the media focus on Iraq in recent days has been on U.S. plans to accelerate the formation of a provisional government in Iraq, now planned to take office by 30 June.

But top U.S. officials also have stressed that putting Iraq back on its feet politically is only part of Washington's goal there. The other part is to reconstruct the country sufficiently to assure it has a functioning economy and once again is a stable society.

U.S. President George W. Bush restated that goal last week when reporters asked him about Iraq's political transition: "Our goal, of course, is to continue to work with those Iraqi citizens who understand that freedom is a precious commodity, those who understand that there is a hopeful life possible in a part of the world where a lot of hope has been diminished in the past."

Washington sees the task of creating a more "hopeful life" in Iraq as essential to the country becoming more of a democracy in the future and, as many U.S. officials desire, a model for other countries throughout the Mideast.

But measuring the progress Washington is making in its reconstruction efforts can be difficult. That is because correspondents reporting on reconstruction in Iraq tend to focus on individual projects in a single location rather than presenting overall trends in the country.

In one effort to compile an overview of Iraq's reconstruction progress, Michael O'Hanlon and Adriana Lins de Albuquerque of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., recently looked at trends over the past eight months in 16 key security and economic areas. They concluded that the picture that emerges is mixed but gives ground for what they call "guarded optimism."

The authors, whose work was based largely on U.S. government information, observe that "for starters, violence against coalition troops has increased as the occupation has lengthened and, in regard to the all-important objective of winning Iraqi hearts and minds, unemployment rates are still too high" at over 50 percent.

But, they say, "most other trends are encouraging: declining crime rates in Baghdad, increasing numbers of Iraqi police officers being trained, and telephone and water services are at about 80 percent of pre-war levels." Electricity, though higher than pre-war levels in some parts of the country, remains on a three-hour-on, three-hour-off schedule in Baghdad and is not expected to be available for 24 hours a day until June.

The "guarded optimism" that the authors express about the reconstruction progress is shared by some correspondents who have repeatedly visited Iraq since Hussein's regime fell in April. One is David Ignatius, a columnist for "The Washington Post," whose most recent trip to Iraq was last month.

Ignatius says that on his most recent trip he found that the welcome many Iraqis gave U.S. troops in April for toppling Hussein remains strong today, as does support for U.S. efforts to rebuild the country.

"It remains true, though it is not often reported, that the Iraqis are really happy that we got rid of this horrible regime.... I was astonished, I just simply didn't expect that [the welcome] one saw when the war began would still be there six months later," Ignatius said.

Many correspondents note that moods vary between different regions of Iraq. People also vary in the degree of change they expect the occupation will make in their daily lives, making public opinion in part dependent on the successes or shortcomings of local reconstruction efforts.

Ignatius says that in one key reconstruction area -- establishing security -- Washington still has a particularly long way to go before it can hand over authority to any new Iraqi administration.

According to U.S. government figures, the Iraqi security forces stand this month at 55,000 police, 700 military, and 29,800 in other services, including the new Civil Defense Force. But Ignatius says that many of those in the Civil Defense Force are young, inexperienced recruits who are bearing arms for the first time.

"[The Civil Defense Forces] is a wonderful idea and they are wonderful kids and they are very brave but I have to say, this isn't going to work for a long time. They are not soldiers yet, they are not even close to being soldiers yet. At some point down the road they will be ready," Ignatius said.

Washington has said it is forming the Civil Defense Force to operate with coalition units in the interim period while a new professional Iraqi Army is being recruited and trained. Initial U.S. plans have called for establishing about 10 battalions of about 350 Iraqis each, with each battalion "sponsored" by a U.S. division or regiment with which it would operate in tandem.

U.S. officials have said they hope to have more than 200,000 Iraqis in security forces by September to take over much of the work being done now by U.S. and foreign troops. But Washington also has suggested U.S. troops will have to remain in the country well beyond that date.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said two days ago that the plans to have a provisional government in place by June will not mean that American troops will leave or step down as the head of coalition forces. He said that the Iraqi Governing Council wants the United States to stay until the job is finished, and part of that job is creating a secure environment.