Mar 18th 2004 | BAGHDAD AND CAIRO
From The Economist print edition

Though an awful lot has gone, and is going, wrong, Iraqis are much freer, and some other Arabs a tiny bit so too

SITTING cross-legged in his Abu Ghraib mosque, an island surrounded by sewage, Sheikh Yasseen Zubaie, the Sunni imam, remembers pre-war Iraq with nostalgia. “The council used to pump out the muck every three weeks. Now they promise, and do nothing,” he says.

War and occupation have made life harder for this town in the Sunni triangle west of Baghdad, where support for the insurgency is strongest. In addition to the sewage, townspeople live with dozens of Estonian troops guarding the market road. At night, power-cuts cloak the city in darkness, except for the arc-lights of Saddam Hussein's largest prison, where most of America's 11,000 prisoners are now detained. Sheikh Zubaie says all his children have diabetes, and he nods at the editorial of a Syrian newspaper now circulating in Iraq. “The foreign occupation of Iraq has destroyed its infrastructure, impoverished its people, dissolved its army and arrested thousands of its sons,” it reads.

The Iraq war was not as controversial as the Suez war of 1956, which felled a British prime minister, or Vietnam, which traumatised a generation. Yet the war divided both the world powers and world opinion. It claimed its first political victim, outside Iraq, when José María Aznar, Spain's prime minister who supported America's invasion and occupation, lost the election held last weekend, three days after bombs in Madrid killed 200 people. It may yet go on to claim the scalps of George Bush and Tony Blair, the war's chief architects. And, of course, it has changed the Middle East for ever. Was it worth it?

History, as usual, is reserving judgment. The war's critics are not. This war, they say, was illegal (neither self-defence nor authorised by the UN Security Council); unnecessary (Saddam seems not, after all, to have had weapons of mass destruction); and left Iraq worse off than before (his Iraq was at least not being torn apart by civil war). On top of this, it drove a wedge between America and much of Europe, added to Muslim suspicions of the West, and distracted attention from more urgent problems, such as the conflict in Palestine and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Some of these claims are fated to remain matters of opinion. Was the war legal? Britain and America claim that the series of Security Council resolutions violated by Iraq, fortified by a final one threatening “serious consequences” for non-compliance, permitted the resort to force. Was it necessary? The non-discovery of WMD has embarrassed the war's defenders. But after invading Kuwait, Saddam was not only under orders to dispose of WMD: he had also to prove he had done so. His failure to offer proof allowed the inference that he had something to hide.

Might prolonged inspections have provided a definitive all-clear? Maybe, but on past Iraqi form that might well have prompted another game of “cheat and retreat”. As to whether a WMD-armed Saddam would anyway have proved a danger to the region or beyond, nobody—mercifully—will now have to find out.

A change in Arab mood
However, not all of the much-debated questions about the wisdom of the war turn on imponderables. On some—such as the war's impact on the wellbeing of Iraqis and the consequences for the Middle East—the facts must have their say, even if they do not all point in the same direction.

For example, some of the war's critics predicted that it would unleash mayhem throughout the region, driving enraged Muslims into the arms of al-Qaeda and toppling friendly regimes like ninepins. Wrong: a rash of furious demonstrations struck Arab capitals during the war, and Islamist terrorism has increased sharply in Saudi Arabia and Morocco over the past year, but so far all regimes have survived.

Indeed, far from destabilising regimes friendly to America, the war may have had a salutary impact on unfriendly ones. Having lost an ally in Iraq and facing imminent American sanctions, Syria's Bashar Assad is striving to mend relations with the West, not least by offering a resumption of peace talks with Israel. The disarmament plans of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi may pre-date the war, but he has now not only dismantled secret weapons programmes, but shipped their parts to America. The Iranians reacted calmly to the removal of Saddam. They did not approve of it; but nor did they approve of him. And since the war they have made a show of being more open about their own nuclear activities.

A Year of Petitions
Those who predicted post-war mayhem in the region were mistaken. But those who expected a wave of reform to sweep the Middle East have not yet been proven right, either. No other tyranny has fallen, and no strides towards greater rights have yet been taken. And yet, although Muslims deeply resent America's plunge into Iraq, it has stirred hope as well as fear. Change is brewing across the whole swathe of territory from Pakistan to Morocco, on a scale not seen since the 1950s, when oil money and army-imposed political populism shook up the post-colonial order.

Much of the change is subtle, registered in shifting moods and vocabulary rather than in obvious action. Its roots generally lie not in the drama of Iraq, but in slower internal evolutions. Where Iraq has been a catalyst, this has often come not from a sense that America's initiative should be welcomed, but that reform is needed so as better to resist America's will, or to avoid Iraq's presently far from enviable fate. Still, whatever the reasons, the war has fostered a restiveness and impatience that is accelerating the region's political pulse.

The past year has seen peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Syria and Saudi Arabia, two of the world's most deeply calcified states. Though quickly dispersed, they were an unusual challenge. Only this month, Syrian campaigners were presenting a petition for sweeping liberalisation, a move that a decade ago might have landed all 7,000 signatories in jail. As for the Saudis, some refer to last year as the Year of Petitions, such was the number of drafts presented to the ruling family demanding representative government and civil rights.

Perhaps nothing will come of all this, but a number of Saudi taboos have disappeared. Debate of the role and rights of women and religious minorities is more open and intense than ever before. So is the soul-searching over religious extremism. Saudis themselves now speak of the problem of Wahhabism, a term they long dismissed as an Orientalist construct.

In Lebanon, long-muted misgivings over Syria's influence have grown louder. In Egypt, where economic slump has compounded the disgruntlement caused by years of political stagnation, the tone of criticism is increasingly strident. In a recent move to placate Egyptian journalists, President Hosni Mubarak suspended the imposition of jail terms for libel. The journalists welcomed this, but then had the impudence to demand the lifting of a host of other strictures on press freedom.

Such internal mutterings, along with pressure from the West, have clearly put the region's rulers on the defensive. Some have opted to pacify their detractors. The government of Sudan is well on its way to concluding peace with southern rebels, following prodding by the United States. Keen to varnish their shabby human-rights images, the Egyptian and Saudi governments have both appointed boards to look into the issue.

A few smaller countries have been bolder. Qatar has initiated a radical overhaul of its education system. Oman has just appointed its first female cabinet minister, a step long ago taken by most Arab republics, but a precedent for the conservative Gulf monarchies.

The air of discontent has also filtered into inter-regional politics. What is sometimes referred to grandiosely as the “Arab system”—the web of institutions such as the Arab League, traditions such as annual summit meetings, and treaties that theoretically enhance regional defence, trade and human exchanges—has long been viewed as a hollow vessel. It has endured shocks before, but the Iraq adventure was seen as a particularly ominous debacle, as near-unanimous Arab opposition to American intervention translated into near-unanimous inaction.

Fearing its own extinction, the Arab League has therefore scrambled to gather support from members for the most far-reaching reforms since its founding in 1945. If the leaders who are to meet at an Arab summit in Tunis later this month agree, the changes could see the creation of several new institutions, including a pan-Arab parliament and court of justice, and a seven-member security council.

However, the summit is likely to be haunted by the question of democratic reform. A vague American programme of suggested reforms, the so-called Greater Middle East Initiative, has met with widespread hostility, reflecting both the nervousness of Arab rulers and their peoples' deep suspicions of the superpower. The initiative provoked a mass protest this month at the University of Menoufia, north of Cairo. Mr Mubarak has ridiculed the ideas as “push-button democracy” that would “open the doors to chaos”. Arab leaders say that America should concentrate on liberating the West Bank and Gaza from Israeli occupation before foisting new demands on the Arabs.

In light of the outcry, America is downplaying its draft initiative, perhaps hoping to let the flak settle before a multilateral relaunch at the G8 meeting in June. Meanwhile, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others are thinking of an Arab declaration to “spur individuals through participation”, which presumably means granting more political rights.

The biggest change of Arab hearts would come if democracy were to flourish in Iraq. But in the meantime the chaos there remains deeply disturbing to its neighbours. Even the minority of Arabs who welcomed the use of force to uproot Saddam have been shocked by the clumsiness of the occupation. The demons unleashed in Iraq, ranging from sectarianism to tribalism to jihadism, have caused some neighbours to suggest that their own stunted status quo may not be so bad.

But how bad is it, really?
The Iraqis themselves feel disorientated, but not necessarily unhopeful. The day Baghdad fell, Iraq went from being one of the world's most regulated societies to one of its least. An overweening state was stripped threadbare by looters, while the incoming American administrators watched like Nero at the burning of Rome.

But a nationwide opinion poll, sponsored by several broadcasting stations, shows that more than half the Iraqis asked believe that their life has improved compared with a year ago (see table). Two-thirds gave “regaining public security” as their priority for the coming year. This is all too understandable: for large swathes of Iraq, life in the absence of real authority is a game of Russian roulette. Insurgents strike where they will. Hundreds of Iraqis are slaughtered each month. Attacks by armed highwaymen are commonplace. Children, especially girls, are kidnapped and held for ransom.

But the end of the dictatorship has huge compensations. Unshackled from Saddam's command economy and 13 years of suffocating sanctions, the private sector is mushrooming. Amid the chaos, Iraqis have imported hundreds of thousands of cars, and millions of previously banned satellite dishes, computers, and satellite and mobile phones.

A jumble of freedom
Freed from regulation, electronic and print media have transformed Iraq. A third of households have paid an average $100 for satellite dishes allowing them to tune into foreign (often anti-American) channels. Monitors have counted more than 230 new newspapers and magazines, 25 of them dailies. Hawkers peddle assortments of previously banned religious CDs, mixed up with Asian porn.

The prime beneficiaries of the consumer boom are the moneyed classes, throttled and evicted by the series of Iraqi revolutions that began in 1958. Exiled landowners are reclaiming appropriated estates. Also flocking home are the old landed and merchant Shias, whom Saddam labelled a Persian fifth-column and expelled to Iran.

The influx has caused land prices in Baghdad to multiply fivefold. Religious tourism floods across open borders: 48,000 Iraqis made the pilgrimage to Mecca this year, up from an average of 15,000 during Saddam's latter years. The construction sector is booming. From its near-collapsed base, Iraq's economy is probably the fastest growing in the world.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq's American-led civil service, struggles to make order out of this jumble. Its local and regional administrators require central approval for their spending plans, and are forced to lug briefcases to Baghdad to collect the cash for their budgets. Arguments over who controls the funds have delayed the Americans' $18.6 billion aid supplement. This had been billed as the panacea for unemployment, put by the CPA at 28% and by the World Bank at 50%.

On June 30th the CPA is supposed to hand over to an Iraqi administration. It, too, is likely to be highly centralised. By abolishing the army and security services, Paul Bremer, Iraq's American administrator, also abolished the country's biggest employer. Now the Americans are the largest employer. Iraqis continue to rely on the state to provide jobs, near-free electricity, landline telephones, food and the cheapest petrol in the world.

Fearful of the social consequences, Mr Bremer has shelved many plans for privatisation, and has bolstered the public sector. A couple working for the civil service can bring home $600 a month as opposed to $40 before the war.

Mr Bremer says electricity generation is back to pre-war levels, but many factories remain closed by power-cuts. Officials promise that the purchase of eight diesel power-turbines will push Iraq's supply from 4,000 megawatts to 6,000 (equivalent to the consumption of a single mid-size city, such as Baltimore) by the scorching summer. But the increase will not keep pace with soaring consumer demand.

Iraq's oil production has returned to pre-war levels of 2.5m b/d, thanks to an injection of $1 billion of American money. CPA officials say a further booster of $1.4 billion should push production to 3.5m b/d, just short of Iraq's maximum in the 1980s. This year, higher than expected oil prices should earn Iraq $14 billion-16 billion, up from $10 billion during the best years of sanctions. But predictions are vulnerable to sabotage. Each time the CPA says it is ready to reopen its northern pipeline to Turkey, a bomb shuts it down.


A soldier's job is never done

In early March, a missile attack severed international calls via a $50m telephone exchange Bechtel had built in Baghdad. The bloodshed has sapped investor confidence. The World Bank, which had been due to allocate its first tranche of donor aid last December, says it will not commit money until a handover of sovereignty, at the earliest. Insurgents have killed more than 150 non-coalition expatriate contractors, and NGO and UN staff.

All the same, some of the damage done during sanctions, the war and after the war has been repaired. Looted ministries have new desks and carpets. The CPA successfully issued a new currency and has dreamed up the region's most liberal banking, investment and broadcasting laws. But pinned behind its concrete fortifications, the authority is often unable to implement its best intentions. Six out of ten households in urban Iraq are still without safe drinking water.

Like its economy, Iraq's post-war politics have advanced in fits and starts. America, strangely unprepared for the predictable complexities of occupation, has chopped and changed its plans. As of last week, Mr Bremer could at least boast that all the parties and factions on the Governing Council had signed an interim constitution that resolves—or at least papers over for the time being—vexed questions such as the role of Islam and relations between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds. In principle, this paves the way for the occupiers to “hand over” to Iraqis by America's self-imposed deadline of the end of June.

This handover will, however, be fairly notional. With too few police and no army to speak of, any new government will need foreign soldiers to protect it for a few years to come. Even now, with more than 100,000 American soldiers still on the ground, statistics suggest that the violence is growing.

One effect of this violence is to distance occupier and occupied. “Do not assume children are innocent,” reads the security advice USAID hands out to westerners. More than 600 policemen have been killed since the war. Ominously, militias, such as the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iranian-trained Shia Badr Corps, are expanding into the security vacuum.

And next?
As to the future, nobody can say. The war's critics have been quick to see in Iraq the pattern of Yugoslavia: the fall of a dictator allows an artificial state to fracture into warring nations—or perhaps to be unified again under the fist of a secular or religious tyranny. The war's defenders continue to hope that Iraq can prove the sceptics wrong, pioneering a modern Arab democracy and so helping to draw the sting of Islamic extremism. For the present, for all the bleakness of the view from Abu Ghraib, both alternatives look plausible