BAGHDAD — Ten years after the war that toppled Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi economy is booming, according to statistics - but most Iraqis say they have not benefited from the economic up-turn.
Baghdad's Stock Exchange opened one year after the fall of Saddam Hussein as a private non-profit organization - replacing the government-owned Iraq Stock Exchange.
Director Taha Ahmed al-Rubaye said there are 125 private and mixed-ownership (public and private) companies in Iraq. But based on the size of the economy, there should be five to 10 times that many. The government still dominates the economy and hinders reform.
“It's written in the constitution that Iraq must be transferred into a capital market country...with a market economy, or something like that, in the future," said al-Rubaye. "You cannot do that, make the private sector work side to side with the government sector, unless you create companies.”
Iraq's economy is growing at nine percent a year. And petroleum production now is nearly three million barrels a day, making Iraq the third-largest oil exporter in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Russia.
New stores stocked with expensive goods would indicate a boom in consumer spending.
But the picture is different for most Iraqis who still struggle to survive. Shopper Intissar Fadl said food prices are too high.
“It was a million times better during the days of Saddam,” said a Baghdad shopper.
Clothes vendor Lateef Saleh said political instability is hurting his livelihood. He said, “When there is an explosion the customers don't come because they are afraid, even when there are a lot of security forces around.”
Many Iraqis complain that the government has failed to rebuild roads and utilities like electricity and clean water plants.
A U.S. official who investigated fraud in the American reconstruction program here, Stuart Bowen, said the main reason is corruption.
“The Iraqis really need to crack down on corruption, and that means modernizing their government systems of accountability," said Bowen. "Right now their budget process is very rudimentary, and that prevents good insight into how the billions and billions of dollars of their budget is spent.”
Bowen said $8 billion of the $60 billion U.S. reconstruction program was diverted. And a senior Iraqi anti-fraud official said $800 million every week is being transferred illegally (laundered) to foreign bank accounts through fraudulent contracts.
As a result experts say Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.