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March 19, 2013

A decade since the start of the Iraq War: Japan carved in Iraqi people's heart

PhotoHideki Matsunaga, chief representative of the JICA Egypt Office

By Hideki Matsunaga
Chief Representative of the JICA Egypt Office

The Iraq War was started on March 20 exactly ten years ago. During the decade, more than 100 thousand Iraqi people were killed. Even after the lapse of a decade since the end of the War, a chaotic situation still remains in Iraq: schisms among religious sects and among political parties have been intensified; the political situation is murky; terrorism takes place sporadically. Under such severe circumstances, Japan has committed itself to supporting the reconstruction of Iraq. The War destroyed the living and lives of Iraqi people most brutally. It is a mission of those who work for development aid agencies to help them recover their living.

Despite the worsened security situation, the reconstruction of Iraq has shown some progress and its economy has been on the path to growth in the past decade after some twists and turns. Thus, finally we see some favorable indications amidst its confusion. I have been involved in the Iraq reconstruction for a period of eight years from the end of the initial military operation in the spring of 2003. I would like to have a brief look at the last decade based on my experience.

From expectations for reconstruction to the aggravation of security

In May 2003 the then USA President George Bush declared to the world; "The Iraq War is over." The international society was filled with expectations and paid a great deal of attention to Iraq's reconstruction. Notwithstanding, the upsurge of exhilaration soon shrunk in parallel with a rapid deterioration in security.

PhotoUN headquarters at Baghdad destroyed by a suicide bomb attacks

A marked turning point came on August 19, 2003 when the UN headquarters at Baghdad, commonly known as the Canal Hotel, were bombed by terrorists. Twenty two UN employees including Mr. Sergio de Mello, Special Envoy for the United Nations Secretary General, were killed by the suicide bomb attack, which gave an immeasurable shock to those who were involved in reconstruction work. At that time I was involved in recovery and reconstruction needs assessment in Iraq together with teams from the United Nations and the World Bank. At the time of bombing, I was on my way to the Canal Hotel and heard explosion noises. Since then, security took a rapid downhill slide, thereby causing grave difficulties to the process of reconstruction.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1483 that stipulated the initial international framework for Iraq reconstruction granted special authority including recovery and reconstruction to the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA). However, although a colossal amount of money was spent in the measures taken for reconstruction under the USA leadership, their effects were rather limited.

The UN was not in a situation to lead Iraq construction in place of the USA. In particular, after the suicide bomb attack on the UN headquarters at Baghdad, nearly entire staff was forced to leave Iraq by about the fall of 2003. At the same time, there was an additional damage; corruption by UN officials for the Oil-for-Food Programme (See the note), which was carried out by the UN in Iraq under economic sanctions after the Gulf War, came to be known.

Under such circumstances, expectations for Japan among Iraqi people were high from the beginning. I visited various places for researches in Iraq such as Erbil in the northern region, Kirkuk and Baghdad in summer 2003. I was pleasantly surprised to meet pro-Japan Iraqi people at a number of the facilities that I visited. They uttered the names of various Japanese people. In addition to their profound trust in Japanese products and technologies, they still carry vivid memories of the activities carried out by Japanese enterprises and businessmen in the 1970s and 1980s when there were several thousands of Japanese in Iraq.

Japan that completed its support despite difficult conditions

PhotoAuthor visiting local sewerage (in 2009)

In October 2003 the Japanese government announced its support in a total amount of over 5 billion US dollars in the International Donors' Meeting for Reconstruction in Iraq held in Madrid. The assistance consisted of grant aid amounting to 1.5 billion dollars (bilateral cooperation and assistance through UN and the Iraq Trust Fund, etc.) and 3.5 billion dollars as monetary cooperation. This amount was the second largest only after the USA that announced an aid of over 20 billion dollars. There is a fact that deserves special mention: almost all the projects in which Japan is involved was completed or still is in progress while a great deal of assistance had to be stopped before its completion due to aggravation in security.

For a while during a chaotic situation when about 3,000 persons were killed in terrorist attacks in a month, it was a daunting task to implement reconstruction projects: it was hard enough to carry out researches and formulate plans, but more difficult was to implement projects in such deteriorated security. That is to say, it was an unprecedented challenge for us to transport equipment/supplies and construct facilities amidst many terrorist attacks.

A virtue of Japanese enterprises is a sense of responsibility to complete a contract that has been concluded. For instance, one Japanese enterprise that had signed a contract to construct a gas power plant with grant aid completed its construction by all possible means: it established its headquarters in Jordan, a neighboring country, and provided Iraqi engineers with opportunities to undergo training as to the construction of a similar power station in a third country while utilizing videos, computers and detailed manuals, etc.

After announcement, it took a longer time than had been anticipated until the start of projects with the massive amount of soft loan aid amounting to 3.5 billion dollars due to a poor security situation and an unstable Iraqi government, which drew stiff criticism from people in the Iraqi government. Despite such situation, the people engaged in reconstruction from the Japanese Embassy in Iraq, the Japanese government, JICA and private enterprises exerted themselves towards their materialization while, at times, moving about in helicopters, armored cars, and bulletproof vehicles. As a result, the nineteen grant aid projects that have been implemented so far are steadily bearing fruit one by one.

Promise expressed in front of Ambassador Oku's grave

During such efforts, there were some unforgettable sacrifices. Many Iraqi counterparts lost their lives. In addition, in November 2003 Ambassador. Katsuhiko Oku, and Mr. Masamori Inoue, Secretary, were shot to death. My heart still aches whenever I recall their deaths. Iraqi people have not forgotten their will, either.

"I want to visit Ambassador Oku's grave." It was in May 2010. Mr. Adel Abdul Mahdi, advisor to Iraq's Electricity Minister, mentioned his wish when he visited Japan for a meeting. I took him to Ambassador Oku's grave in the suburbs of Tokyo.

"We feel very sorry that you lost your life for our country. We will never forget you." In the spring of 2003, Mr. Mahdi muttered in front of the grave of Ambassador Oku who had frequented the Central Power Supply Station where Mr. Mahdi was the director at that time.

PhotoWith people from the Iraqi government who visited Tohoku, tsunami hit area (Left in the front row)

Iraqi people indeed have a firm commitment to human relationships. Two years have passed since I left Iraq. I now work in Egypt, but can still experience this trait fully. Only a few days ago, I received an email from Mr. Samir Abbas Ghadban, the incumbent Chair of the Advisory Council to the Prime Minister stating "The International Cooperation Minister of Egypt has visited Baghdad. I asked him to look after you." Similarly, the Iraqi government-related persons with whom I worked including Mr. Ghadban took the trouble to visit me all the way to snowy Iwate where I was engaged in the rehabilitation work after the Great East Japan Earthquake when they came to Japan for a meeting.

In the summer of 2003 when I visited various places in Iraq, Iraqi people mentioned the names of many Japanese persons. I now understand why. They remember in "a true sense of the term" the relationships and friendships built by people in Japanese private enterprises in the 70s and 80s. Admittedly, their past role may construct only a limited part of the overall reconstruction and economic development in Iraq. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that Iraqi people will remember, for the coming several decades, the relationships with Iraqi people built by private enterprises together with people from the government of Japan and JICA during this past decade.

(Note) It was a specific measure taken under the control of the United Nations in Iraq which was undergoing economic sanctions after the Gulf War to allow Iraq to export oil in exchange for humanitarian goods such as food.

About the Author

Hideki Matsunaga

Born in 1967 in Kanagawa, Japan, Hideki Matsunaga joined the former Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (the present JICA) in 1991. After service at the headquarters and Sri Lanka Office, he worked for the UNDP Iraq Office for two years from 2003. He was engaged in preparations for establishing Jordan Office of the Former Japan Bank for International Cooperation and assumed the office of the Director of the Middle East Division II, Middle East and Europe Department. Immediately after the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake, he started to be involved in the relief and recovery activities as the team leader of the Japan Platform in Iwate and Fukushima, then became a chief representative of the JICA Egypt Office since April, 2012.


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