Stephen Pollard: We can still succeed in reconstructing Iraq

While the situation is not as good as it should be, it is not as bad as the doom-mongers maintained it would be

Saturday's murder in Basra of three British military policemen has, unsurprisingly, given new impetus to critics of the war. Clearly - and only the most Panglossian fool would attempt to say otherwise - the situation in Iraq is not as good as those of us who supported, even urged, the war would like it to be. The murder of the UN officials, regular terrorist assaults on coalition soldiers and key infrastructure targets all give the impression of a mission which has gone horribly wrong.

But it's critical for the future security and prosperity of Iraq that we bear in mind two things. First, while the situation is not as good as it should be, it is not even remotely as bad as the doom-mongers maintained it would be, nor even as bad as many of the current reports maintain. The Iraqis are infinitely better off than they were under Saddam Hussein, and their prospects are brighter now than they have been for decades.

But for all that, there is another story, too. While the allied forces fought a brilliant campaign to oust Saddam, the post-war campaign has clearly failed so far - and not simply relative to the high expectations the supporters of war had for post-Saddam Iraq. We have failed to do enough, or to do sufficiently what is required of us. That is true both in terms of putting Iraq's infrastructure on a footing that will enable the country to stand on its own two feet, and for the more immediate security issues.

Before we can assess what has gone wrong and what we need to do about it, we need first to realise what has gone right - and that's a lot more than most people realise.

Take electricity, one of the most commonly reported problem areas. Before the war, Iraq produced 4,000 megawatts of electricity a day. Today, electricity production is back to 3,400 megawatts; not perfect, but getting better. The real problem is that demand in Iraq is for 6,000 megawatts a day; but Saddam's sclerotic infrastructure is capable of producing only 4,000 megawatts. As Ambassador Paul Bremer, the Presidential Envoy to Iraq (in effect the governor) puts it: "It's not a post-war reconstruction problem, it's a post-Saddam economic mismanagement problem. We have to just keep reminding everybody, particularly the Iraqis, that there is a price to pay for 35 years of economic mismanagement."

The same is true across the board, from sewage to water pumping. That's why the US has ordered, and is paying for, a 4,000-megawatt generator in Baghdad at a cost of half a billion dollars, and emergency generators to be put on top of each of the 36 water-pumping stations, for a further $70m [£44.4m]. The water supply in most of Baghdad is now is above pre-war levels; it is better in Basra than it has ever been.

It's ironic that the most bitter criticism of the post-war reconstruction efforts comes not from Iraqis but from comfortable Western commentators and politicians. Every poll taken in Iraq shows the same thing: that the Iraqis welcome the American liberation and appreciate their rebuilding efforts. In a YouGov poll last month, 50 per cent said the war was "right" (23 per cent had no opinion). Only 13 percent wanted US and British forces to leave Iraq "straightaway"; 31 percent hoped the troops would stay for "a few years."

But clearly, all is not well. Barely a day goes by without news of a terrorist incident; speak to any objective observers and they will tell you that, for all the progress, big problems remain. The Americans were too optimistic and too unrealistic and they have been caught out by reality. That applies not just to nuts and bolts infrastructure issues but also, critically, to security issues.

The Americans were under no illusion that, once Saddam had been removed, everything would suddenly go quiet. They knew there would be constant terrorist activity. Indeed, in many ways it is part of the plan. Iraq is sucking in terrorists from across the region; if they can be fought and defeated in one area, the impact will help to drain other cesspits of terror.

But there is a problem. The US seems to be over-extended, with Iraq and Afghanistan plus other deployments ranging from Korea to Sinai, meaning that major military exercises are being cancelled. So far, 49 of the 182 exercises originally scheduled for the past year have had to be scrapped.

"Given our current worldwide commitments," said Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, "it seemed best to take a temporary break from this exercise". In other words, the US can't cope with such an exercise at the moment.

Nor should it have to. If the UN can be persuaded to do what it should have done long ago - help the people of Iraq - then other countries beyond the coalition should be involved, and not merely with the token forces from 18 other countries that are there today. But even if the UN remains true to form and refuses to sanction assistance - and with the Security Council currently chaired by Syria, one of the most malevolent forces in the region, the omens are pretty clear - those nations fighting for security and freedom must step forward to help the Iraqis win their war on terror.

Compounding the impact of US military being overstretched on security has been the State Department's crippling bureaucratic mindset. Rather than recognising the exceptional nature of the Iraqi situation, officials have insisted at every point in applying the full rigour of US health and safety requirements, licensing procedures and other sundry impediments to progress.

Take the mobile phone network. The sensible solution would have been to pick the most able and cost-effective operator and let them get on with it. But instead, the decision was taken to go through a full competitive tendering process, which takes an inordinate amount of time. One day, however, people suddenly found their mobiles working. One network had decided, to immense acclaim, to ignore the process and, indeed, get on with it. It was swiftly shut down, encapsulating just why things have been moving so slowly in Iraq: bureaucracy ahead of common sense.

None of the problems are fundamental. The picture overall is bright. But the failure to appreciate straightaway the full extent of what would be needed, combined with the worst type of bureaucratic obstructionism, has meant progress has been far too slow.

But the context needs to be remembered. The amounts already being given by the US stand comparison with Marshall Aid. Mr Bremer has a $6bn budget just for immediate use. Soon, when Iraq's own oil production levels return to pre-war figures - between 2.5 and 3 million barrels a day - she will be self-sustaining. Although the terrorists are succeeding in blowing up stretches of pipelines, such attacks were foreseen in the initial plans; as of Mr Bremer's report last week, nothing had happened that threatens the target date of full production by winter 2004.

But since the UN has calculated that Iraq needs to spend $16bn over the next four years on water projects alone, and American engineers estimate the need for a further $13bn over the next four years, extra money will need to be found. That, in the end, is the real priority: hard cash.

That, and a determination not to be swayed in the face of inevitable setbacks, is, in the end, what will make or break the longterm success of the Iraq war.

stephenipollard@hotmail.com

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