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A New Najaf Rises Up

Faris Harram
For the first time in years Fuad Flaih is able to take a taxi all the way to his house in Kufa, one of Najaf province’s biggest districts. Until just one year ago, cars were unable to enter the area as a result of…
7.11.2008  |  Najaf

Fifty seven year old Flaih was obliged to walk two kilometers along dirty, devastated roads to find transportation. Now, however, paved roads have been built and Flaih says it is “a dream come true,” especially for the elderly and sick. “The long distances that we had to walk… led to the death of many people who were unable to reach hospitals,” he said.

This change is just one result of the many reconstruction projects that have been launched in the southern city of Najaf, now trying to assert itself as a leading Iraqi city on the back of improved security.

Across the province, reconstruction campaigns have been launched covering strategic services such as water, sewage and roads, as well as more commercial ventures.

Many parties are involved in implementing and financing the projects, most prominent of which is the government funded Najaf Reconstruction Commission, formed by the provincial council in 2006. Local departments linked to national ministries also implement projects approved by the central government. Additionally, projects are being funded by multinational force and international governments and organizations.

The growing number of reconstruction projects in Najaf is easily noticeable. The total number of projects implemented by Reconstruction Commission alone during 2006-2007 was 758 at a total value of USD $293 million.

The construction of Najaf International Airport, which opened in July 2008, is one of the more visible projects. The venture, which cost more than USD $50 million, is viewed as “a mark of the new Iraq” and will open new investment and economic opportunities for the region. Religious reconstruction projects are also on the rise as Najaf’s role as a leading Shiite site, home to millions of religious tourist each year, is asserted. The USD $400 million Sahn Fatima al-Zahra project lying next to the Iman Ali shrine is becoming one of the largest religious facilities in Iraq. The site, funded from the shrine’s income as well as donations from across the region, will include a large mosque, a museum and a library.

However, the city’s biggest investment project by far is the Emirati and Kuwaiti financed ‘New Najaf City’, covering an incredible 21 million square metres and valued at an immense USD $38 billion, more than half of Iraq’s entire budget for the year 2009. According to the Iraqi Investment Authority, the modern integrated city will be built in the Najaf Sea area (four kilometers west of the Imam Ali Shrine) and will take the shape of a lake with an island at its center resembling the Imam Ali Thu al-Fiqar sword. The city will contain housing complexes, shopping centres, five-star hotels and service and educational facilities to cater for Najaf’s religious tourists.

Najaf’s local government says it is seeking to create a balance between service related projects and strategic aims. Yet, this seems a difficult task in a country wrecked by a devastated bureaucracy and infrastructure hindering the effective implementation of projects.

The Reconstruction Commission says that local governors are only allowed to initiate projects valued at USD $5 million or less. Projects of higher value need to be approved by the central government which then assigns ministries to implement them. According to Haydar al-Mayyali, chief engineer of Najaf’s Reconstruction Commission, “only short-term projects which do not meet the strategic aims of the society,” can be implemented under such conditions.

But, the local government has “partially” been able to overcome this issue by splitting the total cost over successive annual budget says al-Mayyali.

Even as reconstruction projects have been rapidly moving forward, some observers have voiced criticism, saying that many of the important service and infrastructure projects will not survive their expected life span because of construction deficiencies. According to a municipal engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity, “many defects have already appeared” as a result of a lack of technical expertise. Another engineer indicated that a lack of coordination between different reconstruction departments is causing negative overlap. br>
Nonetheless, for most of Najaf’s residents, enjoying the fruits of reconstruction and renewed economic activity, it seems that a new dawn is beckoning.