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Iraq seeks stimulus for Anbar, which bled jobs as well as lives

McClatchy Newspapers

The rubble's gone from the explosions and bombs that tore up the commercial center of this western Iraqi city, but the jobs haven't returned.

In fact, no commercial buildings have come back since Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, saw some of the toughest fighting of the war.

Its economy remains crippled, nurturing a volatile atmosphere in a Sunni province that holds one of the keys to Iraq's long-term stability. When the Anbar cities of Ramadi and Fallujah put down weapons, Baghdad, to their east, sits more safely.

"When terrorism started, it started in Anbar," said Sheikh Ghazi Faisal al-Guoud, Anbar's deputy government for tribal and financial affairs. "Terrorism must end here to end it in Iraq."

His thinking sums up the motivation behind a push to boost Anbar's economy through foreign investment. Supporters say that demonstrating a successful reconstruction push would counter claims by al-Qaida in Iraq that democracy won't bring prosperity to their country.

They've lured $420 million in new investment this year - a whopping sum for a territory known around the world for the deadly street-to-street fighting in Fallujah five years ago. For that, Anbar Governor Qassim al-Fahadawi is being honored as the Foreign Direct Investment Magazine 2009 Personality of the Year.

"The governor in particular views foreign investment as the key to turning around Anbar's fortunes," said Marine Lt. Col. Curtis Hill, a spokesman for Multi National Force-West at al Asad Air Base, where 15,000 Marines still serve. " 'Peace leads to prosperity' is proving to be true in Anbar," he said.

Before this year, the primary spender in Anbar province was the American taxpayer. The Marines have spent more than $291 million since 2006 on capital projects meant to stabilize the province with schools, business micro-grants and public infrastructure.

It's not clear yet whether any of the new foreign investment money will get in the average Anbari's pocket any time soon. Unemployment continues to plague the desert province, and long laid-off workers don't see an end to their troubles.

"All that they are talking about is just words," said Basil al-Kabasi, 35, an under-employed taxi driver who says he can't find a decent job without paying a bribe. "There are promises only at times of elections so they can win our votes. I've lost hope in this government, and I think I will never get a job out of these people."

The projects in the works through the al-Anbar Investment Commission, a government-controlled body, include a 1,000-home subdivision in Ramadi. It's about to break ground, and is expected to open its door to more Iraqis by allowing them to purchase homes with credit - a rare opportunity in this cash-only country.

The commission counts more than 100 Iraqi and foreign investors lining up to start work in Anbar. Most of the outsiders come from Arab nations, such as Syria and Jordan.

They benefit from Iraqi policies that let them operate tax-free for 15 years and grants them land to open shops.

Amer Farhan Awadh, the investment commission's chairman, said the desolation of the province poses an opportunity for companies who want to do business there.

A hotel, for example, would be welcome in the province, which covers a third of Iraq.

"The whole province has no hotel - not a single one, not even a three-star hotel," he said.

Despite the province's leap this year, its challenges look daunting - not the least of which is security. Curfews have been imposed in Ramadi and Fallujah in recent weeks. Gunmen have targeted police officers and tribal leaders who worked with Marines to oust al-Qaida in Iraq.

Provincial leaders also are at odds with Baghdad. They said they received only half the $100 million that was allocated for local services in the Iraqi budget. They also failed to spend large chunks of their budgets from 2004 to 2007, when it was difficult to get anyone to work in Iraq at a reasonable price.

Sheikh al-Guoud, the deputy governor, complains that the Iraqi government hasn't deployed enough soldiers to protect Anbar's borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. So far, Iraqi security forces have focused on central Iraq, leaving border security to small teams and American forces.

He said getting over those hurdles is critical not only for Anbar, but also for all of Iraq.

"Lack of reconstruction might bring the province back to square one," he said.

(Dulaimy is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent in Baghdad. Adam Ashton of The Modesto (Calif.) Bee contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


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