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Rebuilding Iraq Amidst the Ongoing Violence

September 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: In the White House Rose Garden yesterday, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi offered upbeat assessments of the efforts to rebuild battle-torn Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: On television sets around the world we see acts of violence. Yet in most of Iraq children are about to go back to school, parents are going back to work, and new businesses are being opened. Electricity has been restored above prewar levels. Telephone service has increased dramatically. More than 2,000 schools have been renovated and millions of new textbooks have been distributed. There is much more work to be done.

PRIME MINISTER IYAD ALLAWI: Oil pipelines are being repaired, basic services improved, streets and homes rebuilt, schools, hospitals and clinics reopened. Thousands of Iraqis have new jobs. Salaries have been increased dramatically, in many cases five or four times over. Iraq’s economy, freed from the stronghold of a failed Baathist ideology, has finally started to flourish.

RAY SUAREZ: What neither leader dwelled on was the upsurge in violence, especially against the contractors and aid workers at the heart of Iraq’s reconstruction program. Just this week, two American contractors were beheaded. They were among more than 100 foreigners kidnapped since April. At least 30 have been killed.

Last year Congress approved $18 billion in reconstruction aid for Iraq and Afghanistan to go to building roads, electricity plants and schools, but now the administration is asking permission to shift more than $3 billion of that to security and to building up Iraq’s police force and National Guard.

Today, a House Appropriations Subcommittee pressed the administration for details on how the proposed changes would improve the situation in Iraq. Chairman Jim Kolbe of Arizona:

JIM KOLBE: U.S. taxpayers and US policymakers need assurance that our foreign assistance is being used to reinforce a comprehensive strategy to fight the insurgency, regain security, and achieve the milestones of a growing Iraqi democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: Other House members were more critical of the slow pace of reconstruction and of the optimism of the Bush administration.

REP. NITA LOWEY, D-NY: A hasty invasion, inadequate personnel and equipment, followed by a reconstruction effort that has yielded disastrous consequences. The situation in Iraq today is the result of a colossal and tragic miscalculation that has required constant policy changes as we have struggled to secure the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage explained why more money was going to security.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: No plan survives first contact with the enemy, our plan didn’t either; we found this insurgency much more virulent than we expected, and we need to more rapidly stand up security in order then to have enough stability to have reconstruction projects really get traction.

RAY SUAREZ: Armitage said part of the money would go to training more Iraqi security forces, 45,000 additional police for a total of 135,000 officers, and to double the number of Iraqi National Guard battalions for a total of 45 battalions.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: It’s not a matter of getting more in; it’s training them. There were recruits out there; now, all recruits aren’t alike. I said the other day, you can’t make a cake out of sand; you’ve got to have flour and have a relative competency. But it’s not a matter of recruits; it’s a matter of training them. So we’re asking for more facilities. Part of this reprogramming we’d have more facilities in Baghdad. We’ll make full use of the joint police training center in Amman, which is more than 3,000 people trained at a time.

RAY SUAREZ: Armitage also said that the administration’s plan to drastically increase the number of Iraqis employed in reconstruction jobs and help reduce the 60 percent unemployment rate could also help improve the security situation.

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at the security challenges faced by international workers operating in Iraq, I’m joined by John Deblasio of Sally Port Global Holdings, which provides security consulting services and logistical support to the military and private contractors in Iraq. He returned from Iraq last night; and Farshad Rastegar, chief executive officer of Relief International, a humanitarian agency that has been involved in efforts to rebuild schools in southern Iraq. They recently relocated their international staff to Jordan due to the security situation in Iraq.

And, Farshad Rastegar, let me start with you. Why did you pull your people out? Were they directly targeted? Was there a sort of last straw incident that made you decide to pull them back?

FARSHAD RASTEGAR: Good evening, Ray. No, actually, there was no specific incident. It was an increase in the rate of violence and incidents that we saw in our area of operation in southern Iraq that led us to the assessment of pulling our international staff out. And basically we’ve been operating through what we call remote management. And, again, a number of other agencies have done the same, and this is what we would recommend and highly expect.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, southern Iraq is said to be one of the parts of the country that’s more or less pacified, safer than other places. What kind of things were happening around your people that made you fear for their safety?

FARSHAD RASTEGAR: Well, if you remember, the month of August, for example, was one where Najaf was pretty much in a state of constant conflict and, you know, Najaf, Basra, Amarah, they’re all connected and you have the Sadr forces there are quite strong, the unemployment is very high, a lot of youth… and that’s the context whereby we are concerned that leads to the violence.

We look at the situation… security situation not just in terms of what military presence there is, but we look at, you know, the civilian population. Is the civilian population disaffected or not? So you can reduce insecurity by employing the great majority of the youth who have no employment and have no stake in the situation. So far the month of August, we were pretty much in a lockdown situation, even for our national staff. We totally froze all programs and remained indoors.

RAY SUAREZ: John DeBlasio, you’re just back from Iraq. Tell us what day-to-day life is for foreigners working there and maybe you can compare it with earlier this year. Has it changed for better or worse?

JOHN DEBLASIO: Well, I’ve been involved with the Iraqi situation since April of 2003 and it has deteriorated quite a bit since this past spring; whereas a lot of people were able to enjoy something like a normal lifestyle, right now people are — as the gentleman indicated — very much in lockdown mode. The greatest challenges are finding what would be termed secure accommodations and secure movement capabilities for contractors. And right now, the contractors are viewed as part and parcel of the military and the US campaign to assist the new Iraqi government in its legitimacy. And so they’ve become what are really the primary target of the insurgents.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this something that varies from place to place in the country? Are there some places where outside contractors might be working where there’s just not the same kind of fear as you might have in Baghdad, let’s say?

JOHN DEBLASIO: Absolutely. In the North, in the Kurdish areas it’s still relatively safe. People can go out in the evenings, during the day. There has been a spate of kidnappings that have occurred and have started to sort of spread around the country, and that’s, we believe, more related to criminal activity that then allows these insurgents to fund their activities. So there’s been an increase in kidnapping across the country, but there’s still… it’s still very geographic, still centrally located around the Sunni areas. It’s still very bad in Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there variation depending on what kind of work you’re doing? I mean, are the targets in the sense of threat heightened or diminished if you’re trying to deliver clean water versus delivering security services or working as a bodyguard, trying to work on the oil pipeline versus setting up classrooms?

JOHN DEBLASIO: No. You would think so, but they’re very indiscriminate. Right now, as you’re aware probably, the oil infrastructure is secured largely by foreign contractors. Most of the major infrastructure projects are run by foreign contractors.

And what’s happened is because the foreign contractors are so pressured, you know, we’re replacing expatriate staff with local national staff, local national staff tend to have… they’re more likely to have relationships with the insurgents and therefore you find that they compromise your security. So as a result of the lack of expat staff that continue to work in Iraq and the security level, you find it’s actually compromising security.

RAY SUAREZ: Farshad Rastegar… go ahead.

FARSHAD RASTEGAR: I was going to add just that I think we have seen on the technical side — John is absolutely right. If you look at it historically, there’s been a mixing or an invasion of the humanitarian space, a militarization of the humanitarian space which was traditionally safe.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you mean?

FARSHAD RASTEGAR: Well, in the case of Iraq or as opposed to say Afghanistan or any other relief effort or reconstruction effort that we’ve seen in the past two or three decades, the funding for reconstruction in Iraq has gone through the DOD, the Department of Defense, and not through the US Agency for International Development; and that’s a radical change. And the very involvement of the military in the reconstruction has blurred that distinction and so increasingly we’ve seen in the last year and a half, two years, that, you know, the humanitarian workers are targeted.

And, again, not only in the past because of this in Iraq, I would say also there’s been … because of the internationalization of terrorism, because of these networks, this has also been transferred to other places like Afghanistan. But as a comparison overall, if you look at Afghanistan where the funding has gone through USAID, almost 100 percent of the reconstruction funding has been implemented, whereas in Iraq of the $18 billion, only about a billion has been spent — for two reasons, one the DOD doesn’t have the procurement mechanisms of spending money at that level and, two,… or in those kind of programs and two because the military has gone mainly to for-profit contractors who have expertise that’s different from the humanitarian organizations.

RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly, Mr. Rastegar. Are you saying by extension is the work is safer or less safe depending on where the money’s coming from and this administrative chain of command? Would your workers be safer if that work was being done under AID? Is that what you’re saying?

FARSHAD RASTEGAR: Absolutely so. I think it was in December of ’02 that Relief International and a group of other NGO’s through Interaction, an umbrella consortium, wrote to the administration and asked specifically that the civilian authority be… remain for reconstruction work in Iraq and that, unfortunately, was not done. And, again, that’s what we see. Let me give you an example. You would not have… it’s a case of overkill. You would not have a NASA engineer come and fix your cable. You would go to your local cable provider.

That’s what we face in Iraq where big construction companies are given mandates to build village level schools so they don’t include local contractors, they don’t hire locally as much as NGO’s, humanitarian agencies who have decades of experience in this field of involving communities, of creating a sense of ownership by the local communities in the process have. So that’s what’s missing in this process.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, John DeBlasio, given the situation on the ground in Iraq, how have contractors and NGO’s responded? How have they made themselves a smaller target and, in the cases where they are continuing their work, managed to stay on the ground. What are they doing?

JOHN DEBLASIO: Sure. I’d like to just comment very quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: Sure.

JOHN DEBLASIO: The difference between USAID and DOD contracting, while I think the gentleman has a point that the effort was mired in bureaucracy and perhaps DOD wasn’t prepared, there really isn’t much difference in the insurgent’s eyes between the USAID contractor working on the social and economic development effort versus a DOD US Army Corps of Engineer project working on an infrastructure development.

So the source of the money to the insurgents is less known and less interesting. The issue, really, has been that the insurgency has targeted the reconstruction effort and conducting a reconstruction effort in a phase three or combat environment is something that has really never been undertaken in the history of our efforts. Look at World War II, for example, the Marshall Plan didn’t start until 1948. We really have never undertaken anything like this in a… in what is equivalent to a combat environment. So that calls for, I think, different tactics, different efforts.

And what right now contractors are doing and security firms are advising their clients to take a much lower profile, utilize sedan vehicles, for example, instead of SUV’s. There’s been a dramatic increase in the types of vehicles used from light-skinned SUV’s to armored sedans and this allows for greater protection. They’ve also literally required people to not travel, which has inhibited the pace of work. And as the gentleman indicated, the local hiring has increased. But that also has its advantages and disadvantages towards completion of the tasks at hand here.

RAY SUAREZ: John DeBlasio, Farshad Rastegar…?

FARSHAD RASTEGAR: Ray, if I may.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m sorry, we don’t have time for a reply but thanks for being with us.