In his first statement to parliament, the newly appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, identified his government’s priorities: combating terrorism and achieving economic prosperity, taking into consideration the challenges ahead. Despite the incumbent government’s failure to appoint permanent ministers for national security, the interior and defense, which are its main concerns, yet the inclination to select technocrats to head these key ministries indicates that Maliki’s government has overcome accusations leveled against it and early doubts as to its performance. If issues such as unemployment, improving standards of living, improving services, combating financial and administrative corruption, are some of the core issues, the new government will have to resolve, the security situation remains its first and foremost priority. There can be no economic growth and no end to unemployment and no investment without security.
One of top concerns of the government will be to disarm the militias and regain control of the security situation across the country.
If we review the new faces in the Iraqi government and the official duties of each ministry, we find that the former interior minister Bayan Jabr Solagh who remains in the cabinet now heads the ministry of finance. His main task will be to spur economic growth by adopting financial policies that reduce Iraqis’ feeling that the economic situation in the country is deteriorating. He will face a number of challenges, least of which is the rampant inflation, stabilizing the exchange rate, bringing the spiraling deficit under control, in addition to dealing with Iraq’s foreign debts. But, because of the current economic crisis in Iraq, experts are not optimistic about the ability to solve the country’s problems. Doubts remain about the country’s ability to control its finances and halt the economic decline.
The new oil minister, Hussein Shahristani, the renowned Iraqi nuclear scientist, will be responsible for the future of Iraq’s oil, with all the big challenges ahead. His ministry will have to regain control over the country’s natural resources, including oil production, sales and revenue. In this respect, it is important to mention that, in order to increase oil production from its current level at 2.3 million barrels a day to 4 or 5 millions per day, will require huge investment in the oil infrastructure and an upgrade of oil facilities and plants.
Another challenge the new oil minister will have to contend with is how to end the smuggling of Iraqi oil, estimated by the general inspector to cost the state billions of dollars every year in lost revenue. In addition, oil installations around the country remain under threat of attack and the oil infrastructure, including refineries, factories and pipelines, has been sabotaged. Iraq is estimated to have lost 10 billion dollars as a result.
As for the ministry of electricity, headed by Karim Waheed, previously the executive director at the ministry, he strengthened his position in the government without needing to play politics and showed notable quality in organizing the ministry’s affairs. He realizes very well that violence and sabotage have brought improvements to the electricity network to a halt. It was hoped that 160 projects would take place to increase production but, so far, only 57 have been set up. In truth, sabotage is not solely to blame for the continuing suffering of the Iraqi people due to frequent power cuts. The main reason lies in the inability of the network to meet the increasing demands of the country’s population. The infrastructure in Iraq was planned/devised in 1960s to serve a population of 16 million people. It has barely been developed and modernized since last century, despite the increase in population to 27 million. With increasing demands for electricity, the production and distribution networks were pushed to their maximum, causing them to deteriorate. For many years, Iraqi engineers were deprived of the necessary funds to increase the network and upgrade it; they were cut off from the latest technologies and developments which would have enabled them to improve the electricity network across Iraq.
Abdul Latif Jamal al Rashid will head the water resources ministry, knowing too well that the people of Iraq, prior to the Gulf war in 1991 and the UN sanctions, used to enjoy excellent water distribution networks. However, ten years under sanctions followed by the direct targeting of installations during the US-led invasion in 2003, as well as the theft of equipment and the frequent power cuts, have led to a deterioration of services. In Baghdad, for example, only a third of the population receives water, compared to 1990 and an estimated 30% of houses have no adequate sewage facilities, thereby creating huge health and environmental problems.
It is not surprising to see that underground water and sewage networks in Iraq are deteriorating, whereby only half of the rural population in Iraq now finds itself without water and water pollution has reached unprecedented levels, in some instances, more than 25% of the water is unfit for human consumption. Despite this, more than 1.1 billion dollars have been earmarked for the implementation of 147 projects to develop water networks across the country. Nevertheless, sabotage attacks continue to hamper any government effort to improve the distribution of this vital resource. In January 2005, the bombing of al Tarmiyah purification plant in Baghdad, caused an acute water shortage that lasted for more than two weeks and hit al Kirkh and al Rasafah neighbourhoods.
As for the housing and construction portfolio/ministry, it will quickly need to resolve the acute housing crisis, given the shortage of homes across Iraq, which could spiral into “a grave national crisis” if it is not quickly dealt with, according to Iraqi officials.
The housing shortage was magnified with the return of 23 thousand Iraqi families living abroad and the forced migration of almost a million families from southern and northern Iraq to the central regions because of the repressive policies of Saddam Hussein’s regime; many currently reside in abandoned government buildings. Iraqi officials have indicated that the building of thousands of new homes across Iraqi provinces is urgently needed in order to solve the problems of internal refugees. For its part, the ministry of housing and reconstruction believes that 2 million new homes need to be built in the next ten years to solve the impending crisis. Construction companies have refused to fulfil their contracts to build new homes because of a lack of security and the continuing threat of violence.
The success of the new government will rest on the ability of ministers to prove they are genuinely more concerned about the future of Iraq than their party interests.