NASIRIYAH, Iraq — This city in southern Iraq saw some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. Yet today the most visible uniform here is not military, but the bright blue overalls of new municipal workers on an urban beautification project. Life, residents say, is getting better.
About 250 miles up the river, near the Sunni-dominated town of Ramadi, the picture is far different: Tense Americans from the 82nd Airborne Division, weapons at the ready, run a checkpoint on a highway that has seen so many attacks it might as well be named "Ambush Alley." Here, locals quietly applaud each strike on U.S. forces.
"They are occupiers," said 30-year-old Falah Matar, a former Iraqi soldier who now sells used clothes.
But in Basra, deep in the south, Tofeek Majed's main worry is that the foreign forces will leave too soon. The Shiite Muslim entrepreneur sees them as liberators who have opened the door to his dream of someday turning his Internet cafe into a technical college.
Six months after the war, Iraq feels like a patchwork of separate countries -- a confused mix of stability and chaos, progress and paralysis, the only common denominator being the unexpected difficulty of rebuilding Iraq into a stable society. Extensive interviews conducted over the past week in towns and cities around this nation show that, amid this jumbled picture, occupation authorities are making progress in the reconstruction.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. forces in Iraq -- An article Oct. 19 in Section A on progress and setbacks in Iraq incorrectly identified a military unit. It should have referred to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, not the 173rd Airborne Division.
A question central to America's success in Iraq, however, remains unanswered: Is this progress fast enough?
Nearly everywhere, Iraqis said delivery of essential services such as electricity, potable water and emergency health care is gradually improving. Gas station lines have shortened, more members of the coalition-trained Iraqi police are on the streets, courts have begun operating, and schools have reopened -- many refurbished and newly equipped. Fledgling media have sprouted in many communities, and local and provincial governing councils have started work.
Yet for all the coalition's efforts -- and for all the Bush administration's recent attempts to trumpet the progress made in Iraq -- the country remains on its knees economically as violence cripples recovery efforts.
From chaotic Baghdad to the tranquillity of Nasiriyah to the south and Kirkuk in the north, one factor more than any other endangers the nation's fragile stability: the absence of jobs. Even Nasiriyah's newly employed municipal workers face an uncertain future. Their contracts are only for two months.
National unemployment is estimated from 50% to 70%, a range that those monitoring developments in the country believe provides a huge pool of idle, discontented men -- all potential recruits for an armed resistance against the occupation that has already begun to undercut confidence in the Americans.
"Nation-building is always a complex issue, but in Iraq, with all the blood that has been shed between different factions, it is going to be especially difficult," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at Sarah Lawrence College who has studied Iraq's resistance. He argued that attacks by insurgents will increase tensions between U.S. forces and the Iraqi people, sowing mistrust and leading to more home searches, interrogations and traffic-snarling checkpoints.
"The United States is really in a race against time in Iraq," he said. "The more the violence escalates, the more the reconstruction is delayed and the more difficult the task will be for the U.S."
Gerges also warned of two nightmare scenarios: a direct hit on an American installation with heavy casualties that would undercut public support in the U.S. for the occupation, or a confrontation with a major Shiite faction that would drive that group to join the resistance -- dramatically broadening the armed opposition to the American presence.
There is already ample evidence that the violence has discouraged new investment and the jobs that would bring. It has also slowed the return of talented, well-educated expatriate Iraqis and driven away groups that usually spearhead recovery, including the United Nations and major nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.
In Basra, occupation authorities say the absence of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has slowed the return of an estimated 400,000 Iraqis from Iran, while U.N. efforts to supply schools in the city have been delayed by the program's shift to Kuwait. The overstretched coalition military has had to make the deliveries.
In Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, civil affairs team member Sgt. Bill Kennedy from the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division noted the military has been virtually on its own in trying to revive the city.