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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Better in Baghdad?

I am not saying it's true. It is this man's opinion.
Perseverance Pays Off in Baghdad
April 12, 2008; Page A9
The recent violence in Sadrist areas of Baghdad should not distract us from the big picture. The capital city of Iraq is immensely more at peace than it was a year ago.
This time last year, there were deep booms and the rattle of extended firefights from virtually all around the compass throughout the day and night. Such incidents are now a rare occurrence in a week.
Some of the reasons for this progress are better known than others. The surge, the Awakening Councils and the neighborhood-based counterinsurgency program have received solid credit.
But the condign effects of the Iraqis' own Baghdad Services Committee and Popular Mobilization Committee have garnered little attention outside Iraq, perhaps because they are led by Ahmed Chalabi, the returned exile who is far more controversial abroad than at home. Yet these days the committees' weekly government-level meetings are attended by ministers and American and Iraqi generals from David Petraeus on down.
Whatever some Americans in the U.S. may think of Mr. Chalabi, this much is certain: He has stayed in Baghdad throughout the troubles, living in the Red Zone, touring the neighborhoods more than any Iraqi politician, and routinely incurring considerable risks. He could have lived safely abroad on his family wealth.
Mr. Chalabi has made no effort to advertise that he helped the surge succeed by implementing the civilian arm of the Baghdad Security Plan through the work of the two committees. Arguably, he has, more than anyone in the country, evolved a detailed sense of what ails Baghdadis and how to fix things.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appointed Mr. Chalabi to launch the committees last year, no doubt because Mr. Chalabi's unusual habit of direct contact with the populace made him the only realistic choice.
The Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) was launched in February 2007. It now supervises the activity of some 3,000 volunteers around Baghdad. They, in turn, operate a localized system of 120 neighborhood watch committees. They provide intelligence, report trouble, help settle returnees to their homes and the like. They have been crucial in stabilizing the city neighborhood by neighborhood.
Mr. Chalabi estimates that a total of perhaps one million (mostly Sunni middle-class) refugees left Baghdad after 2003. Many of them left Iraq, while some 350,000 were internally displaced. A quarter have now returned, and more are coming back, chiefly because their money has run out. They routinely find squatters in their homes.
According to Mr. Chalabi, the situation is often delicate, but not as bad as it might be. "Everyone knows who actually lives where," he says. "People work out reasonable solutions. Baghdadis are very clear about ownership." (According to a Chalabi aide, real estate values in the city have actually gone up in the last year.) Since many of the refugees were forcibly purged, a deal of suspicion and anxiety attends the process, which the local committees help smooth out.
Meanwhile, the PMC takes Shiite leaders into Sunni areas and vice-versa. "We just did two reconciliation meetings where hostile tribal chieftains invited each other just because they heard we were coming," Mr. Chalabi told me.
Through the PMC, Sunni mosques are returned to Sunnis. Intersectarian prayers are held. The PMC also monitors the prisons, and provides legal help to citizens, as requested by the local committees. To avoid favoritism and the appearance of patronage, "we decided that whoever does the most work gets to lead the committees," says Mr. Chalabi. As a result, even the most hostile sectarian areas welcome his efforts as practical rather than political, and above all as efficacious.
This is especially true of the Baghdad Services Committee, which concentrates on water, electricity, infrastructure repair and the like. The BSC was launched in November 2007, with the immediate goal of reclaiming the circle of power plants deliberately positioned by Saddam Hussein around Baghdad in Baathist areas.
Much of the city's post-Saddam power supply was either hijacked or deliberately sabotaged, until the BSC identified the problem. It demanded a military presence to protect substations, while arranging for the railways to transport diesel into the city. Electricity supply today is three hours on, three off, up from one hour a day last year.
Mr. Chalabi complains that the U.S. does not do enough to help the power supply. "In Mahmoudiya [a suburb], we are asking the Russians to come back and complete a power station which they half-finished in Saddam's time," he says. "Electricity is crucial also for pumping water. Baghdad needs three million cubic meters of water a day. The most reliable source north of Baghdad can provide almost a half of that, but it needs power. We got . . . [from the US military] a massive generator of 60 megahertz, whereas all our system is designed for 50 megahertz – it's just sitting there."
Some Baghdad neighborhoods are improvised shantytowns with no access to water and no sewage system. Says Mr. Chalabi: "We must provide 1,000 tanker trucks quickly by this summer. But I'm not confident we'll get them. The real, long-term solution is to build housing with proper infrastructure – we are in desperate need of new housing."
The BSC has gained a considerable reputation around Baghdad for taking government ministers into neglected areas, television cameras in tow, to shame the government into action. Mr. Chalabi's political party, the Iraqi National Congress, also recently launched a weekly newspaper entirely about services, in which citizens get to sound off and government officials are asked to respond.
The practical projects of these committees aside, one could argue that their greatest service has been psychological: to show that the problems of Baghdad, and by implication Iraq, are not some bottomless pit of chaos. They can be dealt with concretely and overcome with perseverance.
Mr. Kaylan is a writer based in New York.

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