A different view of Iraq
Iraq today is no bed of roses, I know. I have just come back from a tour of the country. But I don't recognise the place I have just visited as the war zone depicted by the Arab and western media.
It is true that Saddamite leftovers and their allies have stolen enough money and arms to continue their campaign of terror and disruption for some time yet. But they have no popular following and have failed to develop a coherent national strategy. The Iraqi civil defence corps has gone on the offensive, hunting down terrorists, often with some success. At the same time attacks on the Iraqi police force have dropped 50% in the past month.
There is also good news on the economic front. In the last quarter the dinar, Iraq's currency, has increased by almost 15% against the dollar and the two most traded local currencies, the Kuwaiti dinar and the Iranian rial.
Thanks to rising oil prices, Iraq is earning a record Pounds 41m to Pounds 44m a day. This has led to greater economic activity, including private reconstruction schemes. That money goes into a fund controlled by the United Nations but Iraqi leaders want control transferred to the new interim government, when sovereignty is transferred at the end of this month.
Despite the continuing terrorist violence Iraq has attracted more than 7m foreign visitors, mostly Shi'ites making the pilgrimage to Najaf and Karbala where (despite sporadic fighting) a building boom is under way. This year Iraq has had a bumper harvest with record crops, notably in wheat. It could become agriculturally self-sufficient for the first time in 30 years.
Nor should one believe the claims of self-styled experts that the Iraqis are not ready for freedom. During the past 10 months elections have been held in 37 municipalities. In each case victory went to the moderate, liberal and secular candidates. The former Ba'athists, appearing under fresh labels, failed to win a single seat. Hardline Islamist groups collected 1% to 3% of the vote.
Over the past year Iraq has absorbed nearly 1m refugees, returning home often after decades of exile in Turkey and Iran. Some 400 of the 5,000 villages razed by Saddam as part of his ethnic cleansing have been rebuilt. Life is returning to the Ahwar region in the south of the country where Saddam dislodged tens of thousands of people and caused one of the biggest ecological disasters of the past century by draining the marshes.
For a country emerging from half a century of dictatorship and three wars in one generation, things in Iraq are better than anyone might have expected. Even a moderate success here could transform the whole of the Middle East.
Iraq is not about to disintegrate. Nor is it on the verge of civil war. Nor is it about to repeat Iran's mistake by establishing a repressive theocracy. Despite becoming the focus of anti-American energies in the past year, its people still hold the West in high regard. Iraq has difficult months ahead, nobody would dispute that. But it has a chance to create a new society. Its well-wishers should keep the faith and prove the doomsters wrong.