Iraq: Perceptions Out of Date

Posted by John Matel
February 14, 2008
Mural in Al Qaim, Iraq

John Matel serves as Team Leader of the Al Asad Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.

Public perceptions of Iraq are not wrong; they are just out of date. Media coverage of Iraq has dropped in almost perfect correlation with progress made toward peace and stability. As a result, the picture persists from pre-surge 2006 but it is not 2006 anymore. It is post-surge in Anbar Province where a significantly more secure Iraq exists rebuilding, learning, governing, producing and starting to make huge strides along the road to prosperity.

Members of my ePRT recently made a visit to Al Qaim, near the Syrian border, and this provides a good example of what I am talking about. Back in 2006, Al Qaim was a bloody battleground, with AQI cutting off heads and hands while insurgents moved around the province with near impunity. This is the picture we all saw in 2006 of Marines fighting building to building and making gains street by street is the one unfortunately far too many of us still recall. The picture in 2008 shows an area of growing prosperity, with markets full of people and things to buy, homes and businesses being rebuilt and people looking to and planning for their future.

During the visit, ePRT affiliated trainers were just finishing up a course for city managers and local officials on project development and anti-corruption efforts. About forty officials attended the four-day program and even on the last day of the training they were involved, excited and animated. A four-day course will not solve Iraq's governance problems, but at least these officials had the ability to imagine and work toward a future better than the past.

Not far away is a vocational training center, run by a USAID contractor. It is graduating its second class of students since it was founded just over a year ago and a third class is already oversubscribed. Young Iraqis are learning all sorts of useful basic skills, such as electrical work, heating and air conditioning, appliance repair, auto mechanics and many construction trades. Students are enthusiastic and are already giving back to the community. For example, in the wood working classes they are assembling desks and bookcases for local elementary school rooms. Graduates are hired by local firms eager for employees with proven basic skills. They are offered good wages, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Demand for graduates far exceeded supply in the first two classes and there are plans to expand the program and make it self- sustaining by getting the businesses that benefit from the program to help fund it.

Iraq's various wars and the late insurgency took a heavy toll on the men of Al Anbar leaving many widows and orphans. One of the ways we are helping address their situation was by opening women's sewing centers, where they are offered training in sewing and tailoring. This is not a temporary fix. These skills can provide basic income and the chance to start a small home business. Graduates get a sewing machine and some basic materials upon graduation to get them started. Empowering women even in a small way that enable them to prosper in specially heartening given the plight of so many widows and orphans across Western Anbar.

A proven way to jump start small businesses is with small loans (microfinance). The microfinance program in Al Anbar made its first loans last November. The number now has reached 211, totaling almost $500,000 and 100% of the payments have so far been made in full and on time. Our team met the owner of a small tire repair shop who benefited from the loan program. He bought a computerized tire balancing system, which increased his customer numbers several fold while saving him time and allowing him to do a better job faster. We talked to another small merchant/manufacturer who creates custom steel rebar and angle iron for construction. When we asked him how his business would have been w/o the small loan program, he told us that he would clearly and simply not have a business at all without the program.

Iraq is certainly no paradise and but what is important here is that it shows what has been done, what can be done and what continues to need to be done here in Iraq. Behind the thriving shops and busy markets are wrecked buildings and damaged lives. Terrorists continue to lurk in the shadows looking for weak spots and openings. But Iraq today shows an unquestionably brighter picture than in 2006 or even back when I arrived just a few months ago in September 2007. The Iraqi people are proving resilient in the face of enormous challenges and demonstrating every day and many ways that if given a chance to improve their lives, they will take it and they will grasp at this new life with a vigor that we often do not see in even more developed situations. The people of western Anbar risked their lives to break free of the grip of AQI and the insurgency. Now they are building the lives they fought for. In our small way, we are helping.



Syrian P.
February 15, 2008

SNP in Syria writes:

Mr. Matel, We thank you for the effort, the hard work and determination. It is not easy to transfer the Iraqi people to 21st century in short period of time after languishing under U.S. and Western backed diabolic Baathist rule for so long. These Iraqis did not receive any reprieve from anyone while they were under such an atrocious Baathist regime that was installed by the CIA against the will of the people decades ago and unconditionally supported.

You better be prepared for life long stay, train your kids for such a noble service of setting up mom and pop sewing sweatshops as the future U.S. President McCain said, It is going to take a 100 years for Iraq to come to age, and he is correct, it is going to take that long, considering Iraq was for more than 40 years under such a destructive Western backed Baathist regime and CIA hand picked evil ruler Saddam who literally brought Iraq into an oblivion conditions, he managed with the help of the United Nations to destitute the Iraqi people.

Frankly, considering it's massive oil wealth (not knowing that the West got all that cash for weapons) it was shocking to many Syrians to see on television screens the first images coming out of Iraq during the illegal U.S. invasion of the country on a false, fabricated causes, as they marched up to forcefully occupy Baghdad against all international laws and treaties. Syrians witnessed for the first time the level of infrastructure desolation, backwardness, abject poverty of the destitute Iraqis. It was shocking to many who had imagined Iraq to be somehow, albeit to lesser extent, on the level of Kuwait. Rather they saw images of Iraq of the 16th century similar to today's images found in Syria, Egypt and Gaza.

Oklahoma, USA
February 15, 2008

Dan in Oklahoma writes:


What plans and preparations are being made to sustain redevelopment efforts, for all of Iraq, in the event that U.S. support is dramatically reduced? Are Radio Schools or other distance learning efforts being planned to help provide remote self-help instruction? In brief, can the current efforts be sustained with minimal, direct American participation. I would appreciate your observations in anticipation of any major changes after the next election. Thanks.

New York, USA
February 15, 2008

Ronald in New York writes:


Perception, deception...

Sorry, no sale. The situation in Iraq has been exacerbated by U.S. invasion, intercene violence and the brutality of Blackwater and other private, unaccountable creations of the State Dept. Trying to spin a tale of USAID improvements is quite disturbing and exploitive. In a large way, we have hurt Iraq, and it is pathetic that State would try to write a positive outcome in this piece.

John M.
February 16, 2008

DipNote Blogger John Matel writes:

@ Ronald in New York --

It depends on what you think I am trying to sell. I am not an expert on Iraq policy nor on the Middle East. What I know here in w. Al Anbar I know from personal experience and from talking to people who have lived through the recent past. You are entitled to your own opinions about Iraq but not to your own facts, and it is a fact that even in the short time I have been here (now approaching five months) significant progress has been made in improving lives. I see from the physical evidence that places which were battlegrounds a few months ago are coming back to life. I know from talking to people how terrible the insurgency was. Remember the sequence of events. The people of Al Anbar started to fight the insurgents and that is one of the things that made success possible. It was their fight that we helped win.

I can also give you another observation as an eye witness. Actual war damage was/is not the biggest problem with getting industries up and running. State owned enterprises were poorly managed and not well maintained for many years; they were not so much destroyed by war as just run into the ground by bad management.

UN sanctions played a role in this, but when you see Saddam's palaces, some of them built during sanctions and all of them beautifully maintained throughout that time, and compare them with power stations, factories or refineries, which seem to have little maintenance and no investment during that same time, you can clearly see his priorities.

So my "sale" is simple and I believe evident to anybody who looks around. Conditions now are amazingly different from those of 2006. I believe that many people still have not gotten that message and view the situation through the prisms of 2006 or before. Your posting would tend to provide evidence that I am correct.

@ Dan in Oklahoma --

Iraq is a strange mix of contradictions. I read information today telling me that there are internet cafes in all significant towns in W. Al Anbar and that 25% of the population has internet connectivity in their homes. This is astonishing in a county that had virtually no open internet just five years ago and even more astonishing when you consider the isolation and remoteness of western Al Anbar. Cellular phones have experienced an even steeper exponential growth.

I don't write this to astonish you, but to suggest that we may be dealing with an entirely different paradigm now that distance shrinking technologies are coming literally online. Radio was a mass technology of an earlier distance learning era. If a significant % of the population has access to Internet, that can be a more appropriate and targeted tool.

This also goes to your question re sustainability. We underestimate the Iraqis and their ability to get what they want given the opportunity. Again, the Internet provides the paradigm. When I arrived at post, I considered setting up Internet "hot spots" to encourage local connectivity. Some people thought this might be a bridge to far in this remote place. Not only was it not too far out, the Iraqis were already doing it themselves.

I believe that if we set some of the processes in motion and there is a reasonable security and market economy condition, Iraqi initiative will do the rest. Right now is the crucial time to help get them over the hump.

When you consider how far this place has come since the terrible days of the insurgency, it really does move at warp speed relative to its past.

@ SNP in Syria --

I am a little surprised by your evident nostalgia for the pre-Baathist Kingdom of Iraq. Of course, it is true that subsequent regimes made it look like a golden age in comparison. Your imaginatively conspiratorial view of the history that followed is fascinating, but I am curious how that would work as a general proposition. Given your formulation, how do you explain current conditions in your own country? Who is pulling those strings, in your opinion?

When I look at the junk heaps of Saddam era weapons, I see mostly Soviet made equipment. Around Al Asad, there are MiGs literally lying in the desert. But there is no pre-2003 American equipment to be seen. Since the physical evidence indicates where the bulk of the "support" came from, did you consider the Soviet Union a "western" power.

Re: the broken infrastructure, please see above. You are right. The place was horribly mismanaged. It is a general problem of dictatorial socialism and oil wealth may actually have exacerbated the problem, but this kind of speculation is getting beyond my experience.

Re: being in Iraq in the development business for a long time -- I think you underestimate the Iraqi people. They have made a lot of progress since you saw the shabby images you said were featured on your government controlled media. The whole point of my post is to update the image and bring it into the present tense.

New Mexico, USA
February 16, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Hey John, got an idea to toss your way.

How about you have some of the Iraqis you are in contact with add their 2 cents worth to those irreconcilable with success.

Kind of wonder if some of them might enjoy a go in addressing some of the more asinine previous comments I've read so far here.

I think if what the Iraqi people needed was to know the U.S. is serious about providing security, they have reason to believe it now.

And do it for themselves.

So if I were to ask one of them a question, it would have to be, "What do you think about being a nation builder?"

Aye well, my point being there's some 30 years worth of construction experience suggesting the world we live in is made by nations of nation builders, on many levels.

Tennessee, USA
February 19, 2008

Joe in Tennessee writes:

I believe the Handwriting is on the wall more ways than one. It would be positive propaganda to paint walls such as this all over Iraq. It is a productive image.

And Eric: You can't defend every single communication line, building, water line, etc. Even here in the U.S. it would be impossibility, especially given the magnitude of zealotries involved.

The objective was to establish a working base of security so the Iraqi citizen would DEFEND themselves. Simple things like Citizen Patrols, which work well here in America, need to be implemented. The people have to care about their own security and over ride their fears staged in a false religious unity. The only enemy they now have is themselves.

To be honest Eric, as far as Security is concerned: The United States is ahead of the original Navel War College estimation given to both Congress and the Senate for security in Iraq before this war was voted in. Politics is pushing changes, not facts.

California, USA
February 19, 2008

Heather in California writes:

John, thank you for all your hard work. Some people may refuse to believe in the progress that is being made, but I'm glad to see that skepticism is not deterring you.

Syrian P.
February 19, 2008

SNP in Syria writes:

@ DipNote Blogger John Matel -- Unfortunately the whole Middle East never got a chance to stand on its feet since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. The Western Colonialist right away devised the Sykes-Picot Treaty, divided the whole area into colonial cantons and gone to the league of Nation to ask for permanent Mandates. We are still living in that history, still to this day, nothing has changed. It is yet to blow up in your or your children face. You, like others are living in a daydream land of your own false imagination and the feel good hype you are trying to sell.

We have no respect, nor confidence, in the Iraqi people whatsoever. They will never make it out of this, not even in Five thousand years. A nation that will tolerate 90 years consecutively a Western installed Bedouin king from the Arabian desert to rule over them, a British installed ruthless dictator, then a CIA installed thug named Saddam, and never rise up against any of these rulers and install own respected nationalist leader, is a disrespected dead nation of people that have no honor and no dignity, just like the typical humiliated, coward many Moslem nations that you see all over the world. The plotters of Iraq invasion knew for a fact, that Iraqis will simply submit to them and live with the occupation for a hundred years.

Islam, was not a religion to bring salvation from a god that live of the Seventh floor to the ungodly Syrian Nation, but just as Christianity before it was a Persian concocted sedition plot, Islam is a seditious, sinister conspiracy to subjugate the Great Syrian Nation to surrender and live under utter defeat and humiliation to the invading nomadic Airab Bedouins that are led by a sinister entity with a sinister, evil plan.

Iraqis, like many in the Middle East abandoned their culture, history, identity and civilization, stopped worshipping the true Universal Creator and chose to worship an Airab god named "SIN" and his daughters "Anaat and Alaat." They all now bow down in humiliation and face the house of Qaba (formally known as the house of Anaat and Allat) rather than own Ziggurats, Heliopolis or Antioch. They have no dignity and no honor.

New Mexico, USA
February 29, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Joe in Tennessee -- Joe, I think you misunderstood that I was putting myself in an Iraqi's shoes as to whether the perception of U.S. intent to "get serious" about security in their eyes had produced confidence on a social level for them to seize the moment as it were.

That America has taken security seriously from get go is not the issue, we have. It's more a matter of results having taken time and strategy adaptations to bear fruit.

Also, Iraqis have witnessed a sustained effort on the part of the Iraqi government as well, and that has had probably as much to do with creating the conditions for an awakening in the first place, as much as anything the U.S. has done.

Naturally enough, Iraqis have taken to the notion that this is their fight to win, not just the fight of those helping them win their right to a better future.

Therin lies the key to stability and sustainability of the effort on all levels.

Some question if the cost is worth it. I wonder if folks after D-day thought it was worth 6000 U.S. casualties on one day in June 44 to defeat Hitler? They who doubt should ask the French.

I'm not exactly comparing apples and oranges here...

Results matter.

Thanks for the info, and the debate.


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