Build on Iraqi hopes

August 09, 2004|By Bathsheba Crocker and Doug Henry

LOST IN THE daily stories about chaos in Iraq is the Iraqis' point of view, perhaps best described as skeptical optimism about the future of their country.

The results of 400 interviews with more than 700 Iraqis in 15 cities during the last two weeks of June suggest Iraqis are frustrated with the pace of reconstruction but obstinately hopeful their lives will improve. But the recent upsurge in violence could quickly undercut that hope if Iraqis lose faith in their interim government's ability to stabilize the country.

Findings from a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, using seven Iraqi researchers, describe a people clinging to the hope for light at the end of the tunnel. The researchers elicited Iraqi viewpoints on security, governance, economic opportunity, services and social well-being.

The interviews open a window into whether the United States is making progress in Iraq from the perspective of the country's people, a voice that largely has been missing. They do not lay out a road map for how or when the United States should leave Iraq, but suggest some conclusions that should guide U.S. policy in the coming months.

Iraqis continue to believe their country will move forward despite the almost overwhelming current difficulties. Capturing that Iraqi hopefulness will require the United States to revise some of its priorities and focus greater attention on others, particularly governance and basic services.

Massive infrastructure projects led by U.S. contractors and economic reforms such as new banking laws have had little impact on Iraqis' daily lives; smaller rebuilding projects visible to local communities have shown much greater promise in building Iraqi goodwill and soaking up Iraq's unemployed.

More attention must be paid to northern Iraq, from a deeply dissatisfied population in Mosul to Kirkuk, whose Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen residents were the only Iraqis to cite a realistic possibility of civil war. Iraq's Kurds worry about the political process and are uncertain about the strength of the U.S. commitment to them. These concerns demand serious consideration by Iraqi, U.S. and U.N. policy-makers involved in planning the forthcoming national political conference and elections scheduled for January.

Security and public safety remain front and center in Iraqis' minds, although concerns vary by region.

Kurds in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah felt safest because of a major presence of Iraqi police and Kurdish militia. Baghdad residents, not surprisingly, responded most negatively on security, suffering through daily car bombings and endemic kidnappings. Street crime and gangs are the problem in Mosul. Fallujah residents blame their security problems on the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces.

Iraqis in most of the country - the survey was not conducted in the major southern city of Basra - are gaining comfort from the growing presence of Iraqi police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and National Guard, all of which seem to command great respect. Their mettle is largely untested, and increased responsibility may overwhelm their capacity, but citizens "adore the new Iraqi police" and view them as "heroes," in the words of a 14-year-old male and a young woman, respectively.

Iraqis largely were pessimistic about governance issues. Downbeat results in Iraqi Kurdistan were surprising because it's the only part of the country with any experience with democracy. Kurds are disillusioned with local politics and apprehensive about the national scene. They are tired of the two Kurdish political parties and are nearly losing hope that their rights will be adequately recognized as part of Iraq's constitutional negotiations.

The majority Shiites (with the exception of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters) seem pleased with the interim government and their opportunity to take center stage. The minority Sunnis in Al Anbar Province, who were supporters of Saddam Hussein, dismiss the interim government as a U.S. puppet. Iraqis are desperate for any government that can restore public safety; most seem to be giving the new government a chance.

Unemployment in Iraq is an estimated 25 percent to 60 percent. Many of those interviewed confirmed that they lack a steady income or rely on school-age children to supplement the family income. Yet Iraqis maintain a rosy outlook about their economic prospects, with some hoping direct foreign investment will turn the tide since they think of Iraq as a wealthy country because of its oil resources.

Iraqis were most negative when discussing the abysmal state of basic services; they generally understand the term "reconstruction" to mean being provided with electric power. Because the coalition has failed for 16 months to deliver a functioning electricity system, many Iraqis simply said that reconstruction hasn't started.

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