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18 MONTHS AFTER BOMBS FELL

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After the last bombs fell in the gulf war, experts said the allied blitz had returned Iraq to a "pre-industrial era." Many predicted a long, agonizing reconstruction for a nation deprived of raw materials and foreign expertise by U.N. trade sanctions.

But 18 months later, Iraq has much of its infrastructure functioning again, thanks to enforced self-reliance, improvisation, materials stockpiled before the war and equipment smuggled in or looted during the occupation of Kuwait."Iraqis under President Saddam Hussein's leadership have achieved miracles in the reconstruction drive," Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan crowed recently. "They've defied all the bad conditions of the sanctions imposed by Iraq's enemies."

The Iraqi claims about the extent of rebuilding cannot be independently verified, but diplomats stationed in Baghdad agree Iraq has made great and unexpected strides.

Whatever their feelings about Saddam's rule, average Iraqis express pride in their go-it-alone achievement, which they believe allowed them to show what they can do without foreign help.

The government is pressing ahead with road, power, water and industrial projects.

According to knowledgeable Iraqis, many repairs are rough, using cannibalized parts. Often, where two facilities were damaged, one is stripped to rebuild the other.

Keeping plants running could become a problem if the United States and other Western nations succeed in pressuring neighboring nations, such as Jordan, to tighten enforcement of the U.N. trade sanctions.

THE SANCTIONS and depletion of stockpiled materials inevitably limits reconstruction.

Vast amounts of equipment looted from Kuwait have been used in reconstruction. For example, eight complete telephone exchanges plundered during the 7-month occupation were used to replace Iraqi facilities destroyed by allied bombs, according to officials in Baghdad, who agreed to talk only if granted anonymity.

The petroleum and electric power industries, linchpins of Iraq's economic infrastructure, are reported to be largely back on line. Baghdad's power supply is again steady.

Much of the reconstruction has centered on the capital, where Saddam's elite is based. Basra, Iraq's second largest city, still is in poor shape and rebuilding has only just begun in the south, which was also badly battered when Shiite Muslims rebelled after the gulf war.

But the government says its huge "Third River" irrigation, reclamation and desalinization project will be completed soon. An army of 4,500 Iraqis, working round the clock, started digging the 350-mile canal from Baghdad to Basra in July.

For the project, Iraq appropriated heavy equipment and other machinery worth some $2 billion from foreign companies that were operating in Iraq before the Kuwait crisis erupted in 1990.

To compensate for shortages and poor harvests last year and this, Iraq is expanding land devoted to agriculture. It plans to double its rice acreage this year and is studying how to extract sugar from dates.

Enormous yellow cranes dot Baghdad's skyline and reconstruction of major bridges over the Tigris River is almost complete. Nationwide, 97 of the 133 bridges destroyed or damaged by allied bombing have been rebuilt, the Committee on Reconstruction says.

Laborers work day and night to repair the Palace of Conferences, a national showcase blasted by four 2,000-pound bombs. Reconstruction of the badly damaged presidential palace was completed in just 79 days.

THE OIL MINISTRY says 90 percent of oil refining capacity has been restored. At the Daura oil refinery near Baghdad, workers scour a huge junkyard of bombing debris for usable sections of metal, pipe and parts.

The ministry says the prewar oil production level of 3.25 million barrels a day could be reached by the end of the year. The offshore oil export terminal of Al-Bakr in the northern waters of the Persian Gulf has been rebuilt, and there are plans to build a deep-water facility.

But the exercise is academic for now because oil exports are forbidden under U.N. sanctions.

The Iraqis recently reopened negotiations with the U.N. Security Council about a U.N.-supervised sale of Iraqi oil. Proceeds of the sale would go to humanitarian supplies for Iraqis as well as reparations to Kuwait.

Iraq previously objected to the plan as an intrusion on its sovereignty but apparently resumed talks in an effort to halt the seizure of $1 billion in Iraqi assets frozen in other countries under the U.N. sanctions.

Iraqi officials say they are capable now of producing nearly 2.5 billion barrels of oil a day. Iraq's oil reserves of 100 billion barrels put it second only to Saudi Arabia.

"In the long run, sanctions probably will have a negative effect on the oil industry since we can't export," Oil Minister Usama Abdul Razzaq al-Hitti said.

"But for now, it's had a positive effect on our total industrial work because we're learning a great deal and we're able to do things ourselves that we never thought we could do."