WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- One afternoon last fall, while standing on top of a Baghdad hotel overlooking the U.S.-led coalition headquarters with a colleague, a plume of white smoke rose over the complex from a trash fire.
"Hey," I said to my friend. "They're burning 'Plan A.'"
"No," he replied. "They're burning Plans A, B, C and D."
Joke or not, that's the impression one comes away with after even a short period of time inthe new U.S.-occupied Iraq. And while Iraq in general -- and Baghdad in particular -- appear far safer and move vibrant than in April and May, there continue to be major underlying problems in both Iraqi society and with the occupation itself.
The top U.S. civilian official in Iraq -- former Ambassador L. Paul Bremer -- along with members of the Bush administration argue the media's focus on the ongoing resistance against the U.S.-led occupation distracts from the real progress that Iraq has made on its transition to democracy. This is a fair point considering that Baghdad -- where this correspondent spent four of the last seven months reporting for United Press International -- has undergone a nearly magical transition from a filthy war-torn capital to a city full of commerce and fairly consistent basic services.
But there are huge problems facing the U.S. occupiers and their Iraqi allies and many of these problems could have been -- or were -- foreseen prior to the April 9 fall of Baghdad. And these problems continue to kill U.S. forces and Iraqi supporters and compels the United States to pursue military operations that further alienate the already-nervous Iraqi people. While recent successes have been seen by these operations -- including the capture of Saddam Hussein and dozens of anti-coalition resisters -- they also have led to short-term spikes in anti-U.S. activity. And as recently as early December, the resistance forces seemed willing to operate almost openly in most parts of the Sunni Triangle -- where they are the strongest -- and operate covertly but effectively in other parts of the country that are less supportive of their cause.
Bremer makes the argument the security situation in Iraq is improving and notes the increased numbers of police and the fully functioning courts. But while there has been some improvement in terms of street crime, the Iraqi police remain badly under-equipped and poorly trained for both the jobs of fighting crime and rounding up resistance forces. On top of their general lack of competence, which was witnessed while accompanying several Iraqi police units on patrol over a two-week period in the capital -- the police themselves have become a favorite target of the anti-coalition forces.
Since late October, Iraqi police stations have been struck by about 10 times and police patrols are under constant fire by both criminals and the resistance. And considering that the average police officer makes about $$@$!100 a month, morale is low and they remain susceptible to corruption because of nepotism and low wages.
Another major accomplishment claimed by the coalition forces is the development of a new Iraqi army and a similar civil defense force; both recruited and trained by U.S. forces. But this program -- which the coalition says will be responsible for internal security shortly after the transfer of the country to Iraqi control in June -- has been hampered by the widespread resignations of the first graduating class of the new military academy, which took issue with both the attitudes of their U.S. military instructors and the poor pay (reportedly about $$@$!40 a month) for being on the dangerous front lines of the war for a new Iraq.
There is no way such a force can be responsible for the daily security of Iraq -- let alone take the lead in fighting the well-trained and motivated anti-coalition resistance forces -- in the short to medium term and by claiming they could be ready, the U.S.-coalition risks repeating a mistake that has plagued many previous efforts -- raised expectation bythe Iraq and American public. Both the Iraqis and Americans were told the transition to democracy would be faster and smoother -- and less bloody -- than it has been, which has led to impatience and negative publicity in both cases.
This lack of security -- and the perception that the Americans cannot bring security to the country -- has led to widespread evacuations of badly needed nongovernmental organizations, corporations and the United Nations from Iraq. This has put a major damper on the economic reconstruction of the country.
The damage to Iraq's economy by corruption under Saddam, the U.N. sanctions and the war itself was badly underestimated by the U.S.-led coalition as it occupied Iraq last April. And as a result, the United States was caught unprepared for how badly maintained even the most basic services would be in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.
As a result of this mistake, the United States was forced to spend badly needed time and resources getting Iraq's most basic infrastructure operating at a minimum level. This drained resources that had been expected to be improving the lives of the Iraqis instead of merely getting those lives back to where they were under the previous regime.
The economic situation remains the second-most critical problem in Iraq now after the security situation and shows even fewer signs of improving. The problems with security have slowed Iraqis oil programs -- limiting output that had been slated to pay for major reconstruction efforts to below the pre-war levels.
Another major factor stymieing the economic reconstruction effort is a political mistake made in Washington and not by Bremer in Iraq. The poor relations between the United States and virtually every major country in world outside of Britain over the war with Iraq has limited the international resources that can be marshaled to help rebuild the country. The Bush administration's refusal to make peace with opponents of the invasion has limited -- both in terms of effectiveness and resources -- the economic reconstructions as major powers such as France, Germany and Russia were ignored both before and after the war and have resources that could be put to good use.
One unforeseen problem that repeatedly noticed in Iraq -- an issue that cannot be blamed on poor U.S. preparation -- are the unrealistic expectations of the Iraqi people in terms of the economic benefits of the occupation.
Having to make the transition from a socialist economy that saw rampant corruption and nepotism to one of a true free-market system is a difficult one even without an ongoing guerilla war and the aftermath of a major invasion, as one can see in the states of the former Soviet Union. But the Iraqis -- who have been fed decades of nationalist propaganda -- truly believe in their national superiority over all other Arab countries and believe that a huge economic windfall would follow the U.S. arrival. They seem conditioned to believe the United States should have already ensured economic growth and that major prosperity is preordained, rather than a long, difficult slog to rebuild and heal a nation that for decades languished under despotic and corrupt rule.
The United States squandered critical time and resources in the run up to war and the months immediately afterward, but all is not lost. It remains impossible to predict the long-term outcome of the U.S. invasion because most Iraqis have yet to decide how they feel about it. But while they remain suspicious of the United States and frustrated by the quality of life, they also rarely mournthe departure of Saddam's regime, which shows some hope. But unless the security situation is quickly resolved -- which will be nearly impossible to do under the current plan of turning security over to the Iraqis -- and economic growth developed, the Iraqis could easily decide to broaden the resistance efforts.