Iraq's Halting Progress
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, January 20, 2004; Page A19
BAGHDAD -- How are things going in Iraq, six months before the planned handover of power to the Iraqi people? The honest answer is "not very well." Despite many improvements in Iraqi life, the American-led occupiers haven't yet found a way to put Iraq back together -- politically, economically or socially.
That's why the Bush administration's decision to seek assistance from the United Nations made sense. The administration doesn't have a lot of good alternatives left.
The most worrisome sign of the deteriorating situation is that many Iraqis are quietly preparing for civil strife. People are talking about ways to get out of the country; they are drawing closer to their ethnic and religious communities. They don't want U.S. troops to leave, but they are afraid of the stigma of collaborating with them. That fear is likely to increase after Sunday's devastating bombing that killed or wounded many Iraqis waiting to go to work at U.S. coalition headquarters.
The paradox of Iraq is that the security situation is actually getting a bit better, even as the political path remains blocked. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December weakened the Iraqi resistance: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the overall military commander here, said Friday that the number of attacks against coalition forces has fallen from an average of about 40 a day before Hussein's capture to about 15.
"A large portion of the population realizes that this is the time to embrace the future," Sanchez said.
Yes, but what future? That's where the U.S. plan remains muddled. No Iraqi political leadership has emerged that can rally the country; Iraq's economy is still a shambles because nobody will make big investments until security is better; and while the Iraqis are slowly building their own army and police, they will need American help for months and perhaps years to maintain order.
The worst may be yet to come. Each of the main stakeholders in Iraq's future -- the Shiite Muslims, the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds -- has been battling to lock in its own gains, at the expense of the nation as a whole. Even senior U.S. officials talk about the danger that Iraq may be slipping toward civil war.
A survey of about 1,200 Iraqis taken in December by a new Baghdad polling group called the Independent Institute for Administration and Society Studies illustrates the country's confused mood: Only 28 percent expressed confidence that coalition forces could improve the situation; yet 57 percent said they would feel less safe if those forces left immediately.
No political leader has captured much of a following. Asked what living Iraqi they would vote for as president, 55 percent answered: "none."
Iraqis want U.S.-style freedoms. The right to criticize the government was supported by 95 percent, and freedom of religion was backed by 86 percent. But working with the Americans to gain these freedoms is seen as dangerous. Asked whether they or their family would be in danger if they worked with coalition forces, 74 percent said yes.
What Iraqis want are the basics: security and jobs. Asked what sort of party they might support, 49 percent said one that provided "more government jobs." And 80 percent said the institution that could most improve things was the police.
Traveling around Baghdad's neighborhoods, you see small signs of progress. Recruits from the new Iraqi Civil Defense Corps guard a long line of cars at a gas station near Mansour Square; they man the checkpoint at a housing complex in Qadisiya, where some members of the Iraqi Governing Council live.
One unlikely sign of law and order came as I was preparing to leave Iraq at 3 a.m. last weekend. Suddenly in a whirl of blue lights, five Baghdad police cars surrounded my vehicle. They were out patrolling for looters and terrorists.
Many people are unemployed, but everyone has a hustle -- from buying beat-up cars to use as taxis to fencing stolen goods. Rising real estate prices suggest some confidence in the future -- they're up fivefold in some neighborhoods from prewar levels. And people are rushing to buy new cellular phones, with service in Baghdad set to start this week.
But the city looks dowdy. Last fall's cleanliness drive has faltered, and trash is piling up again in back alleys. Makeshift roadblocks are back, too, as people try to guard their streets from looters. And the electricity still isn't working normally -- it's often on two hours, then off for four.
The Baghdad airport defines the nation's paradox: Logistically, it's almost back to normal, with bright lights and luggage arriving on conveyor belts. The problem is that almost no commercial flights land here because of fear that insurgents will shoot missiles at them.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company