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Nurture the seeds of civil society in Iraq

Financial Times, April 5, 2004

It would be a catastrophe if the horrific murder of American contractors in Fallujah and the current upsurge of violence among Shia militants were to disrupt the massive and essential US-led reconstruction of Iraq.

Every Iraqi I met during a trip to the country at the end of last month was glad the US-led coalition had removed Saddam Hussein. This unscientific sample reflected the optimism expressed in nationwide polls in March. But people fear terrorism, and they are afraid lest the rest of the coalition follows Spain's threat to leave prematurely.

Travelling with Emma Bonino and two other Italian Radical party members of the European parliament, we visited Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. There, we met Sabri al Rumadia, the nominated governor of the province. He said the priorities were economy, transport and security. There were not enough public works projects yet, he added.

"What is your message to the world?" Ms Bonino asked him. He replied: "Please send any help you can to Iraq. Don't stay away. That would be a big disaster for us." Like many others, he condemned the interference of Iraq's neighbours, particularly Iran.

We met 10 women, including representatives of new women's groups in the province. The new constitution or transitional law, adopted by the appointed governing council in early March, gives citizens, and particularly women, far more rights than in any neighbouring Arab state.

Their main concerns at the moment are jobs and security. Ms Bonino asked: "Do you think life has changed a bit for the better or not?" One answered: "We have great hope for the future. The problem is now." Another said not enough had changed in the past year. Ms Bonino pointed out that after 1945 it took years to rebuild Italy.

In Iraq, the rebuilding is only just beginning. The US is spending $500m on democracy-building programmes, of which $27m will be used to set up women's centres and teach women's rights in every province. The $18bn US aid programme will soon provide many jobs. The World Bank estimates that per capita income will rise by 33 per cent this year and grodomestic product by 60 per cent.

But politically the task is vast. How exactly will power be transferred from the coalition to Iraq by June 30? The 25-member governing council, created by the coalition, could be expanded to become the interim government. Senior United Nations officials are already in Baghdad to try to work out both the electoral law and the UN's future role.

Security during the elections, due to take place before the end of January next year, will be hard to provide. The parties with militias, such as various Shia groups, will intimidate voters.

In Baghdad, Raja Karzai, one of the three women on the governing council, told us that (like other women) she was concerned that the gains women had made in the transitional law could be swept away unless the moderate parties did well.

We also met a group of artists, students and others. "The end of Saddam was like a dream," said one. "The coalition has not protected our security well enough," said another. A third said: "We believe Saddam himself was the real weapon of mass destruction. The coalition has done a huge amount for us. The terrorist attacks now kill two or three people every day. Saddam killed many more than that every day." Ms Bonino asked if they wanted the coalition forces to leave soon. "No," came the response. "We don't want to be occupied - but it would be a disaster if they left now."

The prevailing images of Iraq today - that it is a hopelewar zone and that Iraqis do not want us there - are wrong. The challenge now is to help Iraq rebuild after the monstrous assault of the Saddam Hussein years. If the country collapsed into chaos or, worse, civil war, the consequences would be disastrous. Conversely, succe- the building of a civil society in a region of oppression - would benefit all.

Cambodia, Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo all show how difficult it is to turn brutalised countries into civil societies. The stakes are higher in Iraq than almost anywhere else. This helps explain the hideous ferocity with which this experiment is being resisted by Saddamites, Islamist terrorists and the murderers of Fallujah. Despite the headlines, much has already been achieved. But Iraqis still need all the help they can get to build on the fragile freedom they have been given.


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