Iraq: Trends You Don't Hear About

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May 29, 2006: There are a number of trends in Iraq that you hear little, or nothing, about in the mass media. For example;

@ The economy. GDP doubled from 2003 to 2004, and was up double digits in 2005. Inflation and unemployment have both been falling steadily. Yes, the terrorists are still at it, but in the background you will notice all those people going to work, all the new cars and all the new construction. While big companies have stayed away from Iraq, and all those nasty headlines, smaller firms have been more aggressive. Life goes on.

@ Agriculture. For thousands of years, Iraq was a food exporter. But as oil became a larger part of the economy over the past half century, agriculture declined. Now, for the first time in half a century, Iraq is exporting food. Agriculture has come back big time, mainly because many of the regulations government bureaucrats have piled on farmers for decades, have been eliminated. A farmer can now make a lot of money, growing food in the most productive agriculture land in the region.

@ Currency Exchange Rates. The Iraqi currency (the dinar) trades in a narrow range, against the dollar, that is controlled by the Iraqi Central Bank. For the last few years, the exchange range has been around 1,470 dinars to the dollar. But the dinar floats against other local currencies (like the Kuwaiti dinar and the Iranian rial), and has gotten stronger against both of those currencies. That's a big deal, as it means that the Iraqi economy is getting stronger, and people, in and out of, Iraq, have confidence in the Iraqi economy, and currency.

@ U.S. Bases Taken Over by Iraqi Troops. Since last Fall, over fifty U.S. bases have been transferred to Iraqi control. American troops are moving to larger, consolidated, bases out in the countryside. These require fewer troops to defend, and keep U.S. troops out of sight. Iraqi soldiers and police are taking care of security in many areas where American used to do it. This is why you keep hearing reports of plans to pull most American troops out of Iraq in the next 12-18 months.

@ Refugees. Before the U.S. invaded in 2003, it was believed there might be millions of refugees fleeing Iraq. Didn't happen that way. Over a million people (mostly Sunni Arabs) have fled the country, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon, linked to the growing power of the Shia dominated government, and the fear of retribution for decades of atrocities against Kurds and Shia Arabs. More surprising has been the number of refugees returning to Iraq. So far, it's over 1.2 million people, most of the them Kurds and Shia Arabs.

@ Tourism. The holiest shrines in Shia Islam are in southern Iraq, and in the last three years they have seen a growing flood of pilgrims. Over 12 million so far, and increasing as Shia Moslems kept away by Saddam's police state for decades, make long deferred trips. Some stay longer, mainly religion students. For the last three decades, Shia religious scholars and teachers have been fleeing Iraq for places like Iran. But now there are over 12,000 religion students in southern Iraq, attending hundreds of newly established schools. These pilgrims and students spend a lot of money as well, helping to feed economic growth in the south.

@ Media. Iraqi has gone from police state, to media madhouse, in three years. Under Saddam, media was tightly controlled. Since Saddam, hundreds of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations have appeared. Talk radio and investigative reporting are all the rage. The gangsters and politicians hate it but, so far, have been unable to stop or control it.

@ Health and Education. More hospitals and schools are open and operating than ever before.

@ Democracy. It's thriving, and contrary to popular opinion, it's not an alien concept in Iraq. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Iraq had democracy. A military dictatorship was established in 1958, in the name of progress, and that was the end of democracy. The Baath Party was going to make things so much better, as long as everyone did what they were told. Iraqis are not stupid, and there are older Iraqis who remember the old democracy. Yes, it may have been ramshackle, but compared to Saddam and all that came after 1958, democracy is a lot more popular these days.

May 28, 2006: A top aid to al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Kassim al-Ani, was captured in Baghdad by Iraqi police. Meanwhile, Iraq and Iran have agreed to coordinate their border patrols, in order to stop illegal crossings of their mutual, 1,100 kilometer long, border. The deal appears directed more at smugglers of commercial goods and illegal drugs, because there are powerful factions in the Iranian government that remain committed to supporting the establishment of a religious dictatorship in Iraq.

May 27, 2006: Al Qaeda, and Baath Party terrorists continue to carry out enough attacks to keep foreign journalists occupied, but the terror campaign is much diminished over the past year. There are still several suicide bomber attacks a week, and assassinations of government officials or tribal chiefs continues. The terrorists are still obsessed with the idea that they can foment a civil war. But most Iraqis look at the terrorists as a crime problem. More and more, terrorists are caught because of a tip from a concerned citizen (although cash rewards are also given for some types of tips.) The private militias (Shia Arab in the south, Kurdish in the north) are still attempting to take control, politically and economically, of certain areas. The militias run their protection rackets, taking a cut of whatever they can. The militias have a payroll and other expenses. The government has a hard time keep the police honest, as their is a tendency (an old Iraqi tradition) for local police commanders to go bad and become just another money grubbing bunch of gangsters.

The government is cracking down on the militias, sending in the police SWAT battalions and army units to take on the militias. This is getting people killed. In normally peaceful southern Iraq, over two hundred people died from militia related violence just last month. The two largest Shia militias in the south (the Badr and Sadr groups) are trying to establish one of themselves as a religious dictatorship in Iraq. Most Iraqis want no part of this, but radicals in the Iranian government (which is a religious dictatorship) are supplying guns, money and technical help to Badr and Sadr. This is getting people killed and is rather pointless, but that makes sense to many in the region.

 

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