The U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq has come under heavy criticism for the slow pace and perceived lack of cohesion. Several assessment missions have reviewed the situation three months after Saddam Hussein's ouster to see what progress has been made and recommend areas where the operation could be improved. The analysts who participated in the fact-finding trips warn the window of opportunity is quickly closing for winning the full support and confidence of the Iraqi people.
When the U.S. administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, visited Washington last month, he outlined the three most urgent goals of the U.S.-led coalition's reconstruction effort.
"Today, we have three challenges in Iraq: Securing the country, setting the economy on the path to prosperity and building the foundations of a sovereign, democratic government," he said.
More than three months after the major battles ended, security remains a top priority for most Iraqis. But that is not all. A fact-finding team that visited Iraq in late June and early July found basic services and economic concerns are not far behind. The evaluation was requested by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Ambassador Bremer. The team included scholars from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations and the United Nations Foundation.
U.N. Foundation Senior Program Officer Johanna Mendelson-Forman says a lot more has to be done in the next several months to keep from losing the support of Iraqis.
"In addition to speeding up security, there needed to be jobs," she said. "There needs to be a socio-economic rebuilding, which starts with the very basics, like putting people in the ministries back to work, keeping former soldiers in their barracks and paid until there is a plan to demobilize them. Many of these things were really not thought through very well, because the sense was that the people would just go back to work and life would continue, but under a new government. That obviously did not happen."
In a recent interview with VOA's Talk to America program, Mr. Bremer pointed out that basic services are improving. "We've now got electricity at 75 percent of pre-war levels, which is 10 times as much electricity as existed the day I arrived here," he said. "This allows us to provide most of the country with 18 to 20 hours of electricity a day. We hope to be back to prewar levels by the end of September."
But Mr. Bremer acknowledges that is still not enough to fully service a population of 25 million. Saddam Hussein's mismanagement of the economy left an inadequate power infrastructure, which, Mr. Bremer says, will take much more time and money to fix.
But Iraqis say it is not happening fast enough.
The National Democratic Institute recently sent a separate 14-member evaluation team to Iraq to gauge reconstruction progress. Pollster Tom Melia conducted a series of focus groups that allowed a cross-section of Iraqis to express their views about the post-war situation. He says frustrated Iraqis have not overcome a basic suspicion of U.S. motives for ousting Saddam Hussein and occupying their country.
"And they find that the United States in the form of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the American-appointed Governing Council is the only authority that they can complain to and complain about. So, they do a lot of that," he said.
Sociologist Mendelson-Forman says part of the problem is bad communication between Iraqis and the reconstruction team. The coalition team, she says, needs to explain what it is doing, and give the local population fair warning about power outages or water shortages, or even where to find much-needed propane gas and other supplies.
"The Iraqis need to have this media outreach extended and consolidated, and unfortunately, that was one of the big shortcomings of the operation," she said. "I know they're trying to correct this, but I think, at this stage, we still lost the Iraqi hearts and minds because of the communications process."
Both assessment missions recommended decentralizing the coalition's authority on a practical level to give regional councils and Iraqis themselves more power to more quickly respond to their own needs.
Ms. Mendelson-Forman's team agreed the reconstruction job is massive and will take from five to seven years, a lot more time than the coalition authority originally calculated. She said the U.S. administration needs to internationalize the effort to share the responsibility, the resources and the talent that is needed to do the job. A donors conference has been organized for October.
"Fighting the war required one type of coalition, but building the peace will require a much broader coalition, which will include the UN, and multilateral institutions, and will also require the G7 (Group of Seven most industrialized nations), many of whom did not participate in the war. That's where the resources are," she said.
Ms. Mendelson-Forman also stresses the importance of closer cooperation with the United Nations, which she says can offer the new Iraq the recognition and sense of international legitimacy it needs to resume its place in the world political arena.