Published on Friday, September 24, 2004 by Knight-Ridder
Iraqis Don't Share Interim Prime Minister's Upbeat View
by Patrick Kerkstra and Nancy A. Youssef
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appeared before the U.S. Congress Thursday and declared that Iraq is on the right track.
His citizens, including some who work for the government, aren't as convinced.
Indeed, they're most uncertain about the very issues that Allawi assured U.S. lawmakers were increasingly under his government's control: the elections scheduled for January, the nation's infrastructure and its security.
When Iraqis say, "Thank you, America," it's usually with a touch of irony after the electricity shuts off or another bombing interrupts rush-hour traffic. Polls have shown Iraqis are grateful for Saddam Hussein's ouster, but that gratitude was quickly replaced by outrage at the deteriorating security conditions, lack of basic services and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Allawi said that while many have doubted that elections will be held in January, as the interim constitution requires, he's convinced they'll happen in time. In fact, he said, "In 15 out of 18 Iraqi provinces, the security situation is good for elections to be held tomorrow."
But the preparations needed for the elections are enormous. Farid Ayar, a member of the eight-member Independent Electoral Commission, said recently that the commission has just begun recruiting the 70,000 workers needed to hold the elections. And it still hasn't sent out forms to families to determine who lives in each household and whether they can vote.
Nor has the committee determined how citizens can declare their candidacies or whether the committee will provide them with campaign funds.
Most citizens, Ayar said, don't even know how to vote.
"We are trying to tell people about the elections through the media," he said.
Several major factions have also refused to participate in the election process, citing U.S. interference, unfair alliances and poor representation of certain ethnic groups.
Allawi also said Thursday that Iraq was quickly developing its own security forces through a massive build-up of the army, police and national guard.
A sweeping recruitment effort is under way, and there's been no shortage of applicants, despite frequent and deadly insurgent attacks on recruits.
But there's little debate that those forces are currently ill-prepared and understaffed.
"We need the government or the multinational forces - whoever - to treat us as human beings and not as machines," Col. Safaa Ali, the commander of a Baghdad police district, said Thursday. "All of us are exhausted. We work 13 hours a day."
His officers, Ali said, weren't ready to take on insurgents.
"We are taking on forces beyond our strength," agreed one of Ali's men, who asked not to be named. "We cannot win."
Like Allawi, Ali is optimistic about his country's future. But his timetable doesn't match the prime minister's.
"It's very far away," he said of Iraq's stability. "Too far to see."
Allawi cited Samarra and Tal Afar as places where multinational and Iraqi authorities wrested control from insurgents. But for those who live there, the liberation came at a steep price, said Songul Chabouk, a Turkmen and member of the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council.
In Tal Afar, thousands of families were displaced and many people were killed, Chabouk said. She added that Allawi's government didn't respond to the Turkmens' appeals to stop the fighting and displacement.
And despite continued air strikes in Fallujah and Ramadi, those cities remain under insurgent control. While the attacks have killed many insurgents, they also have left many women and children dead, Fallujah residents have said repeatedly.
Allawi claimed success for a joint Iraqi-U.S. operation to sweep insurgents out of Najaf. In fact, at least two delegations from the Allawi administration failed to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff in Najaf. It was the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the revered Shiite Muslim religious leader, who finally brokered a truce, exposing the secular government's weakness in the face of the powerful Shiite clergy.
While Allawi said that Iraq is battling a destructive but small terror network, U.S. military officials have estimated that insurgents could draw up to 20,000 fighters on short notice. And the kidnapping of foreigners and Iraqis has become a profitable and deadly business.
The prime minister acknowledged Iraqis' suffering and said his government has tried to improve their quality of life. He cited the return of a polio vaccination program, oil pipelines that have been repaired and the construction of new schools and health centers.
But Allawi didn't mention unemployment or the electricity shortage, the two issues that Iraqis almost unanimously list as most important to them, after security.
While more power is being generated now than before the war, the total hours of electricity available to most Iraqis haven't improved much. Unemployment, though, is worse now than it was under Saddam's regime; about half of Iraq's workforce can't find a job, according to the Planning Ministry.
Greater strides have been made in health care and education. Medical staffing has improved considerably in Baghdad, though there are reports that the countryside still desperately needs more doctors. Even in the city, doctors said they still lack supplies as basic as aspirin.
"Things are about the same as before the war, or maybe a little worse," Wisail Abdul Rahaman, a doctor at a Baghdad clinic, said earlier this month. "But we have hopes."
Knight Ridder correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report.
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