ATMs Are Signs of Progress in Iraq

By-the-numbers report suggests shattered Iraq slowly being put together.

BAGHDAD Jan. 16, 2009— -- The first ATMs have opened in Iraq since the invasion five years ago -- an encouraging factoid contained in a new by-the-numbers Defense Department report about progress in the country.

In fact, there are now 20 ATMs in Baghdad, where the banking system was so devastated a few years ago that the United States had to fly in pallets stacked with dollars to pay government employees. Some restaurants even accept credit cards these days.

The details about the ATMs and what is hailed as Iraq's move "into the electronic banking age" is tucked into a 58-page quarterly report the Defense Department submitted to Congress this week.

The document, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, is an accountant's version of Iraq. Nearly every paragraph has a number in it and the numbers that caught the media's immediate attention are those concerning war and death: Civilian deaths are down 63 percent and the number of roadside bombs are down 44 percent -- though assassinations are up.

But other figures in the report give an inkling about life in the shattered country. Many of those indicate that pieces are slowly being put back together.

One notable piece of data: There hasn't been a blackout of the national grid since May.

"The Iraqi government continues to manage the electricity sector with increased effectiveness," the report states.

Even more remarkable is the indication that the insurgency has pretty much stopped blowing up the towers that carry power lines.

"Improved security has nearly eliminated interdictions," the report says. "In September 2008, sand storms knocked down several towers and the Ministry of Electricity had crews on-site within 24 hours to begin repairs."

No blackouts doesn't mean power 24-7, but the report is pleased to note that on average, the grid is providing power 14 hours a day, a big step for a country that has been largely running on private generators in recent years.

That 14-hour figure is an average, however. The allocation of power comes and goes depending on the political or ethnic composition of each area or, often, who pays the biggest bribe.

Daily power can be as little as four hours and the roar of private generators remains the constant background noise of Baghdad.

Most observers don't see a significant improvement in the country's energy situation until 2014.

The country's first new hospital in 22 years opened in Basra. And the number of Iraqi doctors coming home is on the rise. Only 200 returned to Iraq in 2007, but in 2008 the pace picked up to about 80 a month -- so that more than 800 badly needed doctors returned to Iraq last year.

Disheartening Trend: More Female Suicide Bombers

Much of the country was a no-fly zone for years. Even President Bush had to fly into Baghdad in a twisting corkscrew pattern two years ago to avoid being a target for insurgents.

But Iraqi air travel is enjoying a boomlet. There are now twice-weekly flights between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, and Najaf Airport was opened to commercial flights last November.

Not all of the numbers are encouraging and some are disheartening.

While violence may be down overall, techniques for attacks continue to evolve.

The Iraqi government "faces increased demand for female security personnel because of the large increase in female suicide bombings -- 41 women have carried out suicide attacks this year," it says.

As a consequence, 1,000 women have been recruited into the Daughters of Iraq, a security force. The report notes in an aside, however, "Female police and volunteers face substantial hurdles to gain societal acceptance."

Perhaps most welcome to Iraqis is the plunge in non-war related deaths -- a figure that any police commissioner in the U.S. would welcome: "Murders have decreased 98 percent," the report says.

Water and sewage services actually are deteriorating, despite the billions spent on new water treatment facilities.

"National polling indicates that 64 percent of Iraqis can get safe clean drinking water at least some of the time," the report says. "This is down seven percentage points from November 2007."

And in a blow to quality of life, it found that "only 39 percent of Iraqis state that they have a working sewage disposal system at least some of the time, down nine percentage points from November 2007."

With the decline of violence, there is a rise in expectations, putting additional pressure on the Iraqi government to improve sanitation, electricity, sewage, water, street cleaning and other staples of a functioning government.

While the world, and most Iraqis, see the country as a dangerous war zone, one statistic found that the closer to home, the better the situation looked.

"Research conducted in October 2008 reveals that 76 percent of Iraqis described the security situation in their neighborhoods as calm," the report says.