Sluggish pace of rebuilding

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - It is 1 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon at the gates to the State Enterprise for Electrical Industries, and the workers have gone home. What about the managers? Out. Is even one technician left inside? The guards shake their heads: Of course not.

Granted, it's 110 degrees outside, and the weekend - Friday in Iraq - is just around the corner. But knocking off work early is routine in postwar Baghdad. At the sprawling plant, the day begins at 9 a.m., and the workers who do show up are out the door by noon.


Granted, some things are beyond the workers' control - the lack of functioning infrastructure for electricity, water pressure, telecommunications and finance. But the lackadaisical attitude also seems to be a byproduct of a national mood of shock and depression since the country's centralized system was upended by the Americans' advance.

Whether intentional or incidental, the work slowdown has hampered efforts of occupation authorities to begin rebuilding Iraq.


In a country where more than half the adult population is unemployed, even those who have jobs are hardly doing anything. At the Electrical Industries plant, employees estimated that a third of their 3,000 co-workers perform no meaningful labor, signing in only to be eligible to collect their monthly pay from the coffers of the U.S. occupation authority.

"Any employee wants to feel that he does something," says Kareem Ibrahim Mohammed, assistant general manager of the plant, which manufactures ceiling fans, light fixtures and other items. "I think all our workers are suffering sadness and hopelessness about the future."

The inefficiency and paralysis in almost every sphere have compounded the tide of discontent and, inevitably, the anti-American feeling.

The symptoms are obvious: Police don't patrol. Municipal workers don't pick up garbage. And factory workers - most of them, anyway - just sit around. The challenge for the U.S. occupation authorities, and for the Iraqis, is how to get the country moving again.

There are glimmerings of hope. Slowly, some workers and managers say, things seem to be getting better. Confusion and disorder are still widespread, but not as bad as they were a few weeks ago. Given enough time, they argue, the country could right itself. Political leaders hope that last month's launching of the governing council made up of Iraqis will provide more direction and leadership.

Hani Adnan, 30, a municipal garbage collector, is one of the hard-working minority in his department. He operates a city garbage truck in the central Karada district from 5:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. seven days a week. He makes $60 a month plus about $2 a day in tips that he shares with two young relatives who help him. At night, he takes his truck home with him, because he's afraid it will be stolen if he leaves it in the municipal garage.

Baghdad's streets remain choked with trash. Most of Adnan's co-workers have not returned to work, either by choice or because their trucks were stolen in the postwar looting.

Despite his fear that his truck will be hijacked and the various threats from Saddam Hussein loyalists that have circulated in Baghdad against anyone cooperating with the occupation forces, Adnan considers it his duty to stay on the job.


"We are not afraid, because I am serving my country, not the Americans," he says.

But he says he wishes that plans to set up an Iraqi government would be accelerated.

At the Baghdad South Power Station, director Bashir Khalaf Omar agrees that the formation of an Iraqi government is key.

"When there is no government, even me as a manager, I have no authority," he says.

Omar says his workers were among the first back on the job after the war, but electricity services still haven't returned to normal because of a skein of problems: war damages, sabotage of the electrical system and looting of transmission cables.

Workers for the electrical grid were dispirited by the assassination of Haifa Daoud, a director general of one of the city's electricity sectors, in what was widely interpreted as an attempt by Hussein supporters to intimidate anyone collaborating with the U.S. administration, Omar says.


He denies, however, that it was affecting their efforts.

"To the contrary," he says, "workers here feel that we are bringing electricity for the benefit of the hospitals, the schools and the elderly. In my opinion, people want us to work and get electricity to all the people."

The South Baghdad Plant is doing its bit, supplying close to its maximum potential of 180 megawatts of power.

But elsewhere in the public sector, says Said Furaih, a 35-year-old chemical engineer at the plant, "they don't have the motivation to work because their buildings are damaged or occupied by the Americans. They are there, but it is as though they are without hands. They just take their salaries and then leave."

The lack of initiative among the Iraqi work force was one of the surprises about the postwar occupation, says senior British diplomat John Sawers, who is second in command in the American-led civilian authority here.

Sawers had expected a flowering of enthusiasm after the weight of oppression was lifted. That initiative, he says, was beaten down by decades of dictatorship and centralized control.


"You've got both physical problems and attitude problems," he says. "People have needed a very specific set of instructions to be told what to do It is not springing back to life. It has to be nurtured back to life."

"We employees still feel insecure, which of course affects our motivation," says Mohammed Shaker Mahmoud, an employee at the electrical parts factory, in Baghdad's Waziriyah section.

Mohammed, the factory's assistant general manager, says he can't believe that the Americans keep paying salaries to a work force that is essentially idle. What the plant really needs, he says, is the promised U.S. help in getting the plant productive again.

"Excuse me," he says, "I don't like to say it, it's impolite - but they're lying to us."

Lt. Col. Maan Khalaf of the Khadamiya district police station says his men had faced similar morale problems. But those problems are being overcome, with resulting improvements in the men's performance.

At first, his men had no uniforms, no weapons and no pay as they embarked on the risky work of restoring law and order in the district, he said.


But step by step, they're getting the tools they need.

Their pay is better than before, Khalaf says. And the police are more appreciated now than in Hussein's time, when they were seen as an arm of repression.

"People say, 'God bless you and thank you for your efforts,' " he says. "So, of course, I will stay in this position."