WASHINGTON — While the continued presence of 193 Soviet military advisers in Iraq has drawn harsh criticism from Congress, far more crucial services actually are being provided by about 7,000 Soviet civilians who are still at work on projects vital to Baghdad's economy, U.S. experts said Friday.
Both the Soviet Union and the Bush Administration have sought to play down the importance of the advisers, stressing instead the areas in which Moscow has cooperated with the international effort against Iraq.
However, the work being performed by the civilian experts and technicians--at work on such crucial Iraqi projects as a 40,000-ton grain elevator, a major irrigation system and a giant power station--will have a direct effect on Iraq's ability to withstand the international embargo that is the centerpiece of Washington's long-term strategy.
"These guys are important because this is key infrastructure. You can shut the power down by getting these guys out. They are much more important, in my mind, than the military guys," says Ilana Kass, a Soviet specialist at the Pentagon's National War College.
Though the issue of the private advisers has received little attention, it could become an important one at this weekend's Helsinki summit. It is a difficult line for President Bush to walk: Pushing too hard on the issue might undermine Soviet cooperation in other areas, but allowing the Soviet advisers to remain in Iraq could weaken the grip of the embargo.
In a recent article in a major Russian Republic newspaper, Sovetskaya Rossiya, Soviet officials provided details of the projects that they had undertaken in Iraq and acknowledged that by withdrawing the civilian advisers, they could do "definite damage to the Iraqi economy."
"It would not be easy (for Baghdad) to make up the losses," according to the newspaper report, which included an interview with K. F. Katushez, the Soviet minister of foreign economic relations.
Since 1959, the newspaper said, the Soviet Union has provided technical assistance on at least 100 Iraqi construction projects, more than 80 of which are now fully operating. The most important work still in progress includes a 1,680-megawatt heat and electrical power station, the grain elevator in the city of Sulaymaniyah, drilling in the western Qurnah oil field, construction of a major irrigation system and planning and survey work for a major hydroelectric power complex on the Euphrates River.
For decades, Iraq has invested a sizable share of its oil revenues in economic development. As part of its strategy, it has paid handsomely for the expertise of the developed world. Many of the Westerners now being detained in Iraq were technicians who had moved there to provide just that type of know-how.
Unlike many other Arab countries, however, the Iraqis also made a determined--and largely successful--effort to learn for themselves how to operate the advanced equipment that they purchased, analysts said.
"They are above average, and far ahead of the Saudis, who couldn't draw cold water from the tap" without Western expertise, said one foreign-policy specialist, speaking on the condition that she not be identified.
Thus, the services being provided by the Soviet civilian advisers are among the few areas of vulnerability that the United States can target.
Still, not many analysts believe that Iraq is likely to be brought to its knees simply because it does not have access to spare parts or to foreign specialists.
Although Western intelligence-gathering agencies are getting occasional reports that "the system's beginning to fray and wear and break here and there," Iraq is not experiencing major disruptions, one source said.
"They've demonstrated a remarkable ability to innovate their own kind of jury-rigged technology in things that we would not necessarily have expected them to do, and they have done it by themselves," the source added. "They may have done it with technical equipment from the West, but they essentially did many of the things themselves, so I wouldn't underestimate them."
Paul Freedenberg, who was undersecretary of commerce for export administration during the Ronald Reagan Administration, noted that Iraq is not a technologically complex society by Western standards. Therefore, he said, the loss of trained foreign technicians does not mean "that the place is going to stop."
Freedenberg also noted that other nations have demonstrated that it is possible to adapt to a loss of technical expertise. Most Western technicians left Iran during the turmoil of the late 1970s and early 1980s, he said, and Iranians simply learned to put up with a power blackout or two each day. They would even carry flashlights to restaurants so that they could dine without interruption.