Fuad K. Suleiman, Ph.D.

The following was a presentation at Al-Hewar Center on November 9, 2005, by Dr. Fuad Suleiman, about "Life in Iraq: An Eyewitness Account."  Dr. Suleiman recently returned from Iraq, where he spent a year managing a large USAID assistance program.

These are one man’s observations on Iraq in 2004 and 2005, written by someone who was against the war and who did not think the reasons advanced for attacking Iraq were cogent enough to justify war. I first joined in October 2003 a team of “gray heads”, each with many years of experience in international development, who were asked to conduct an evaluation of what the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) accomplished in its first year in Iraq, March 2003 to March 2004. The US Congress had appropriated about 14 billion dollars for Iraqi recovery and reconstruction; USAID was one of the agencies charged with assisting in this recovery. USAID had issued several contracts and grants, worth roughly one billion dollars for the first year of work. My particular assignment was to evaluate how USAID and its implementation partners did in the education sector in the first year. The assignment was to be for two months in Iraq and two months in Washington. USAID officials with whom we met seemed genuinely interested in finding out how well the agency was doing. I was off to Iraq in early January of 2004. The evaluation assignment was completed in April 2004. I returned to Iraq in August of 2004 to manage an assistance program also sponsored by USAID for the Ministry of Education where I remained until June of 2005.

I knew of course that Iraq had been under the control of a most brutal dictatorial regime. I had met many Iraqis who had escaped the Saddam dominated Iraq. I knew that Iraq had been engaged in a series of wars that resulted in hundreds of thousand of casualties. I knew that Iraq had been under a strict regime of international sanctions. I knew that U.S. and U.K. military had been bombarding Iraq continuously since the end of the first Gulf war. I had known about the impact of the regime and wars on a segment of Iraqis. Since 1992 I had been involved with a group of Iraqi Kurds here in the US that was working for Kurdish human rights. I had spent a few years trying to get US aid to Kurds in northern Iraq, including help in removing some of the millions of landmines that the Saddam regime had left behind.

But I did not know what all of this meant for the Iraqi citizen and how all of this affected the daily life of Iraqis. The fate of a majority of Iraqis was not the dominant issue in US or western press reports. 

I had known that conditions generally were bad but I did not realize until arriving in Baghdad just how bad daily conditions were. Iraqis were ready to share with us personal stories about the suffering of their families under Saddam. It appeared that almost everyone had a brother, a father, a relative or more, who had been arrested, tortured, or killed. The economy was in shambles. The Saddam Government had been following a kind of socialist state-controlled economy, and it was a failure. Buildings had the look of shabby construction familiar to Soviet controlled societies. Major production facilities were Government owned. The Government was the main employer. Salaries and wages were very low. The Iraqi dinar had lost much of its purchasing power, having gone from being worth 3 to 3.5 dollars in the 1980’s to a rate where three thousand dinars were worth one dollar. A teacher was earning a few dollars a month. Most Iraqi families had long lost their entire savings and had sold their family heirlooms for meager amounts in order to provide for daily food.

International sanctions seemed to have had a devastating effect. The country was not allowed to import items that could be used for military or dual use purposes, and these criteria were defined broadly. The country’s youthful population, nearly 40% of the population being under 15, was especially impacted. Walking into a local pharmacy I was struck by how bare the shelves were. The pharmacist confirmed that he had no anti-biotic medications at all. Being interested in health and education I visited many universities, colleges of medicine, and of course primary and secondary schools.

I was struck by the awful physical conditions that prevailed. US bombs had made about 400 schools unfit for use. But nearly 70% of all 16,000 or so schools in the country needed major repairs. The Saddam regime had let them deteriorate. I knew of only one school that was built since 1993, and I had a listing of all schools in the country. Most schools did not have electricity; a good portion of those that were wired for electricity did not have it. It was a rare school that had working toilets. Parents told us they made arrangements to pick up their children to take them home for a toilet break. Library collections in universities did not have scientific journals published since the 1980s. The text books used in one chemistry course were published in the 1980s. Iraqi graduates in computer science for the most part had not seen a PC and nearly all were still being trained on MS-DOS since the use of MS-Windows was deemed a dual use import.

UNICEF told us that hundreds of thousands of children were under-nourished or ill. About 1.8 million children of school age were not attending school, that is, one out of every four children.

Corruption prevailed in Government ranks. Corruption is not so rare in developing governments, and even not so rare in some leading developed societies, but it was pervasive in tightly controlled Iraq. I was struck by the fraying social bonds in the society at large. Iraqis had been raised to inform on their neighbors, to distrust each other, to suspect anyone who offered a helping hand, and to obey anyone in authority. Self-initiative, so highly valued in American society, is a liability in a dictatorship and these habits stay for some time.

I marveled at how such a beaten society could possibly be a threat to the one remaining world super power? I visited universities and research centers and never had anyone talk to me about his/her research in weapons of mass destruction. I never saw any labs that could conceivably train the scientists or technicians needed for such massive scientific enterprises. But then I was not specifically looking for such weapons.

Before I departed from Washington I had to obtain an ID card from the Department of Defense (DOD). The country was then run by two entities reporting to the DOD. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was then headed by Ambassador Bremmer but he reported to an Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense, responsible for daily policy. Then there was General Sanchez responsible for military operations. My first visit to the CPA showed that we had sent to Iraq some Americans many of whom were proud of how little they knew about Iraq, the Arabs or Islam. Some behaved and really believed that they were the new “ministers’ running Iraqi civil servants. One lady told me that she was the Minister of Education although an Iraqi had been so-named in September 2003 as the CPA formed a Provisional Government and she had no qualifications for the position. A group of American recent college graduates none of whom was over the age of thirty ran the Ministry of Finance, and bragged publicly about their good fortune. The person chosen to run the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research was a US Army colonel whose specialty was nuclear weapons; he was there to investigate the role of universities in developing Iraq’s nuclear weapons. He soon gave up and was replaced by a man who only three years before was a graduate student in history, and after obtaining his doctorate had prepared himself fully for running Iraq’s twenty universities by working on tapes of President Eisenhower speeches. With notable exceptions most Americans we sent were not encumbered with area knowledge, language expertise, or depth of international experience. They did not seem to be working according to any one overall plan for the occupied people. Some wanted to make Iraq at once a fully functioning ideal capitalistic society forcing every Iraqi to live a life that these Americans designed for him. They seemed to have come with pre-determined agendas that may have meant something in the US political theater of the time but not in Iraq. The MOF folks wanted to give all Iraqi government employees a significant salary increase, but they wanted to exclude the employees of the MOE because there were too many such employees. They wanted to privatize at once all state-owned enterprises except for oil industry whose turn would come later.

In early 2004 I could move around Baghdad and the country with relative ease. The security situation soon began to change for the worse. By August 2004 I needed an average of eleven heavily armed Iraqi and international personnel every time I left the residence or our offices, and after November 2004 found it necessary to join other Americans in the heavily fortified “international zone”. A new phenomenon was emerging in Iraq, the obvious presence of a new kind of warrior, the employee of a private security company. The field seemed to have been dominated by British companies that employed former British officers and soldiers from elite British units, although there was a good sampling of South African and Nepalese troops. American companies were there too. These “private” companies employed Iraqis, mostly former officers and soldiers in the Iraqi Army, but usually in subordinate positions. These companies took on the role of guarding foreign businessmen, mostly Americans, and facilities where foreigners lived or worked, including for example, the United States Embassy building itself. But some of these “civilian” soldiers participated in military operations against the insurgents and were at times targeted by the insurgents, as you may have seen in the case of “American contractors” hanged on a bridge in Fallujah. A president of an American security firm affirmed that he had the capacity to field at least one full division of combat ready troops.

Our planned assistance program had broad and honorable objectives that would meet the support of the majority of Iraqis and perhaps more importantly most Americans, although they may be had been absurdly overoptimistic given the security situation in the country. Questions can certainly be raised regarding priorities for action and the methodologies used for achieving them. In both areas I found us to be lacking.

The U.S., I believe, had a golden opportunity to show the world how the new and only world super power can use its wealth, its good will, and yes its armed forces to create a better world and a better Iraq. We chose the wrong priorities and we badly implemented what we started.

It did not require much acumen to identify priorities. We heard them every day from Iraqis with whom we interacted. They wanted peace, security for themselves and their properties, restoration of basic life essentials and jobs that would give them decent wages by which they could support their families. These are understandable and basic human needs. If you walked even today (assuming you dared) on any street of Baghdad you will still here these priorities articulated. No high-sounding promises of a future democratic heaven can substitute for a long period (it has been two and a half years of US occupation and many more of Saddam) of unemployment, poverty, illness, and de-humanizing life conditions. These same streets of Baghdad still smell of broken sewers and uncollected garbage. Iraqis are still spending days and nights without electricity. Hundreds and thousands have become unemployed because of our actions, and they are having serious trouble caring for their families. These are the very same ones who constitute the core of resistance, or even commit the crimes of robbery and kidnapping that have beset occupied Iraq.

If some of the priorities were mistaken there was also much to be faulted in the methodology of policy implementation. Much of the work was turned over to selected American companies that may not have been the most qualified for the job. There was limited control over funds and quality of performance. We witnessed horror stories of shoddy work in school rehabilitation, for example, and of waste in spending assistance dollars. We saw extravagant expenditures and arrogant administration.   

This is not to imply that we did no good in Iraq. There are many Americans who truly believe that we have done some good there and wish that we can do more. I can cite such achievements as inoculation of children, printing of textbooks, resuming the school year in 2003 and opening schools for 2003-2004 year, significantly increasing salaries for all government employees, etc. Then there was the welcome and sudden release of restraints on freedom of speech and political expression. Hundreds of new newspapers began to publish and one could sense a collective willingness to engage in political discussions. Evident was the thirst for learning more about other nations, especially the United States. 

Perhaps the best achievement was the end of the international sanctions. I suspect that end to sanctions may have been one of the reasons for initiating the war, since the US felt that sanctions could not be continued indefinitely and that other nations were going to violate them in any event. No matter, Iraq began again to interact with the world. One immediate and observable result was that Iraqis began to import electronic and household items. The sight of TVs, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and other household good stacked in front of stores, and being purchased, is one unforgettable scene.     

Another was the sudden importation of nearly a million cars, mostly formerly owned and refurbished, that came into the country in the first year, and consequently added to Iraqi daily traffic woes since there were no traffic lights and few traffic officers. Unfortunately drivers of these cars began to wait for gasoline in long lines and pay high costs for their gasoline.

It was not surprising that Iraqis did not resist US troops as they came into their country. Many former officers stated that they chose not to fight for the regime. They had tried several times to overthrow Saddam and failed each time they tried. They welcomed his defeat. They did not consider themselves as defeated or conquered people, and they are still of the same opinion. They seemed to echo President Bush’s assertion that they were “liberated” people. Iraqis with whom I met were generally friendly to the US, liked America and our system of government- although they disliked several aspects of our policy in the Middle East.

While Iraqis did not meet US troops with rose petals they generally gave the US the benefit of doubt believing the often repeated US assertion that the US waged war to rid Iraqis of a horrible regime. The average Iraqi did not seem to me to have asked himself why would America be so altruistic and why would the US not ask for a price. Thoughtful Iraqis, of course, knew better.

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