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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 September, 2004, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Iraq: Signs of desperation
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

It is a telling indication of the problems in Iraq that the US State Department wants to switch money earmarked for water, sewage and electricity improvements to the training of Iraqi security forces.

Attention is switching from long-term infrastructure to the immediate needs of security and stability.

Iraqi police surveying scene of explosion
Iraqi police: Can they take on greater responsibilities?
Prompted by the US ambassador in Baghdad John Negroponte, the idea is to use $3.6 billion of the $18 billion approved by Congress last November to, among other things, train more Iraqi police and other forces, create more job programmes in an effort to reduce unemployment and plan for the elections in January.

Of the $18 billion only about $1 billion has been spent so far, partly because reconstruction has been so difficult given the lack of security for contractors.

The move comes as questions are being increasingly asked in Washington about whether Iraq can ever be put right.

What can be done now?

The mood among US policy makers appears to be one of digging in grimly for the long haul, while handing over as much responsibility for Iraq to the Iraqis themselves, however fragile their shoulders might be.

Two recent reports from US think tanks have examined the problems and have made recommendations. They do not make happy reading.

Iraqi optimism and patience have somehow endured. They must be harnessed, because they could easily be fleeting.
CSIS report

The more substantial one is from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

It concluded: "Two months after the United States transferred sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government... Iraq remains embroiled in an insurgency, with security problems overshadowing other efforts to rebuild Iraq's fragile society in the areas of governance and participation, economic opportunity, services and well-being."

In none of these areas, it concludes, is Iraq moving towards what it calls "tipping points" towards "self-sustainability and further progress".

"Security continues to be the predominant issue, hampering reconstruction efforts on all other fronts. Iraqis are well-disposed toward their own security forces... but those forces are still not up to the task. Iraqis have little confidence in US and other international forces."

Governance and political participation:
"A largely negative picture, despite a slight boost in optimism related to the June 28 transfer of sovereignty. Iraqis are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the January elections but otherwise remain starkly pessimistic."

Economic opportunity:
"The continuing lack of economic opportunity and high levels of unemployment impact reconstruction in other sectors, fuelling security problems and leading to entrenched frustration and anger at the occupying forces."

"The lack of sufficient electricity in major cities continues to undermine public confidence, fuelling worrisome discontent in cities like Falluja and Mosul which were favoured under Saddam and now receive considerably less power than in pre-war days. Sewage systems are worse than they were under Saddam."

Social well-being:
"[There has been] significant improvement in terms of access to education and healthcare although there has been a downward trend in recent months... The lack of a functioning sewage system has led to an increase in water-born diseases."

The CSIS report makes the following recommendations:

  • Accelerate and enhance training of Iraqi security institutions. Form more joint units with Iraqis in the lead. Keep US troops "over the horizon" to provide a rapid response.
  • Revise the US assistance programme to increase direct Iraqi involvement, especially in disaffected cities.
  • Reinvigorate the effort to expand international engagement, such as the return of the UN and help for reconstruction and debt relief.
  • Decentralise government, give more money to the justice system.

The report says, perhaps surprisingly: "Iraqi optimism and patience have somehow endured."

But it goes on: "They must be harnessed, because they could easily be fleeting."

It further says: " Iraq will not be a 'success' for a long time. Whether or not US forces are invited to leave in 2005 [when a fully constitutional Iraqi government is due to take office], Iraq's ultimate success depends on building Iraqi capacity to take the country forward."

It is pretty gloomy stuff but its thrust is clear. Iraqis must take over as soon as possible.

In another report, published in the journal Foreign Affairs by the Council on Foreign Relations, Larry Diamond, a former adviser to the Coalition and now with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, looks at what went wrong and puts forward some ideas.

He is critical, as many have been, of the approach taken by the US administrator Paul Bremer who appeared to be reconstructing Iraq with the idealism of the 18th century Enlightenment.

The de-Baathification programme and the dissolution of the Iraqi army were two key strategic errors, he says.

Mr Diamond also favours a policy of giving Iraqis control: "The transition in Iraq is going to need a huge amount of international assistance - political, economic, and military - for years to come.

"Hopefully, the US performance will improve now that Iraqis are in charge of their own future. It is going to be costly and it will continue to be frustrating.

"Yet a large number of courageous Iraqi democrats, many with comfortable alternatives abroad, are betting their lives and their fortunes on the belief that a new and more democratic political order can be developed and sustained in Iraq. The United States owes it to them - and to itself - to continue to help them."

Eyes will turn soon to the elections in January. These at least should give some legitimacy to an Iraqi government, even though it will be a transitional one. It remains to be seen though whether that will be the tipping point or just another dismal milepost along the road.

The BBC's Andrew Burroughs
"Witness accounts have spoken of mortar rounds landing in the area"

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