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The Conflict in Iraq

U.S. Official Touting Iraq's Progress Finds L.A. a Tough Sell

June 26, 2005|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

As a U.S. official brought the government's case for progress in Iraq to Southern California last week, Los Angeles businessmen Ron Hartwig and Ghanem Garawi had strikingly different responses.

Hartwig was buoyed by the speech of Ambassador Robin Raphel, U.S. coordinator for Iraq reconstruction, that laid out progress in fostering democracy, building the economy and training Iraqis to combat the insurgency.

"I've heard more about progress taking place today than I've heard

But Garawi heard the same basic speech at a meeting later that night at a Pomona mosque frequented by Iraqi Americans and dismissed it as political spin.

"We know the reality, and for someone to come in and polish it in a different way to serve her agenda is only fooling herself," said Garawi, a native Iraqi, as other men gathered and nodded in agreement.

Raphel's two-day stop in Southern California began Friday with a discussion among Muslims, Jews and Christians and ended Saturday before a town hall meeting of Arab Americans. Her message that "things are not as bad as they seem," coming amid declining public support for U.S. efforts in Iraq, drew polite but often skeptical responses.

"There's a belief that the Bush administration policies moving forward have less to do with the welfare and well-being of Iraqis and Arabs in the Mideast and more to do with big American companies" profiting from work in Iraq, said Nidal Ibrahim, a magazine publisher and member of the Arab American Institute-Southern California, which invited Raphel to speak.

Raphel, in an interview Saturday, called such beliefs "simply not correct."

The 30-year foreign service official, who has mostly served in South Asia and the Mideast, said such perceptions were based on seeing only "a small piece of the puzzle from the immigrant communities and their families."

In one appearance after another, Raphel described what she called "remarkable progress" in Iraq: successful elections leading toward a new government and constitution; an economy enjoying double-digit growth, increasing trade and declining unemployment; and better security, with 167,000 Iraqi police officers and soldiers now trained.

In one area of intense concern to her audience, Raphel said nearly a third of the $20.9 billion in U.S. funds for Iraqi reconstruction had been spent, with more subcontracts now going to Iraqis and more focus on smaller projects Iraqis can better see and appreciate.

Her message received the warmest response at the Town Hall Los Angeles luncheon attended by business and civic leaders. There, the audience invited Raphel to share the good news about Iraq not reported by the mainstream media. Scot McBeath, a Los Angeles commercial real estate broker, said Raphel's talk had moved him from "skeptical to optimistic" about Iraq.

"What's disturbing to me is if someone doesn't have a plan of action," he said. "But there are a lot of positive steps being taken."

Raphel faced tougher audiences elsewhere, starting with an interfaith dialogue group meeting at the Westside Jewish Community Center on Friday morning. Among the issues she was asked to address were major electricity shortages, the deteriorating U.S. image worldwide and whether sensitivity training was planned for U.S. troops, who have upset Iraqis by barging into their homes and mosques.

She was also asked if the U.S. had made mistakes in Iraq, to which she responded with a laugh. "Yes!" she said, citing insufficient planning and a reconstruction plan that focused too much on large, long-term projects.

The questions, Raphel said later, reminded her that "California tends to be more skeptical than other areas."

She did not appear to win over many converts. Asked if she bought Raphel's message of progress, Xandra Kayden, a Jewish coordinator of the dialogue group with Muslims, answered, "No." The U.S. presence, she said, "is an opportunity for more and more insurgents pouring into Iraq.... We've created a mess."

At Ahlul Beyt Mosque in Pomona later that night, Raphel donned a head scarf and spoke to about 60 people, mostly immigrants from southern Iraq. The largely male audience asked polite questions, many of them about the reconstruction efforts. Afterward, however, they said her report was too optimistic, and they expressed frustration at what they viewed as lack of progress in restoring security, basic utilities, trash services, and damaged buildings.

"The picture she painted is more rosy than the reality," said the mosque's imam, Ridha Hajjar.

Most of those interviewed said they had recently visited Iraq or spoken to relatives there and received dismal and sometimes frightening reports.

Sheikh Mohammed Falah Alattar, a Fontana imam, said he was frustrated that there seemed to be no reconstruction of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, despite a near absence of the violence that has impeded economic development in other parts of Iraq. "Most people don't like Americans at all, unfortunately," Alattar said. "They think Americans promise things but don't do what they say."

Raphel, however, said more work was underway than any single Iraqi could see.

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