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Extremists Out, Capitalists In

How can a dusty, partly-abandoned ceramics factory on the edge of Ramadi help stem the tide of al-Qaeda in Iraq?

This is one of the conundrums that the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team faces in this gritty Western Iraqi city. Ramadi was overrun by al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups for much of the past five years, until Iraqi tribal leaders finally succeeded, earlier this year, in routing them out of the city.

In the past few months reconstruction has begun – or at least what passes for reconstruction in Iraq since the invasion. That is, tearing down bomb-damaged buildings (in Ramadi’s case that amounts to a large swathe of downtown), patching up the rest, and clearing away the rubble. So far over $200 million has been spent on the cleanup. I’ve witnessed this process before, right after the war, and again following U.S. offensives in Fallujah. But what happens next? That’s the big question facing Ramadi, and really the rest of the country. Once you’ve cleared out al-Qaeda, how do you bolster civic society and local governance to stop extremists from returning?

That’s where the State Company for Glass and Ceramics comes in. Until last year the Ramadi factory sat empty, as did 200 other state-owned enterprises. In 2003, I spoke with U.S. officials who roundly dismissed these enterprises: most were antiquated Ba’athist behemoths. The few that could produce something useful should be privatized, officials said; the rest – well, if they couldn’t survive market forces then they deserved to crumble. This neo-conservative economic theory neglected the broader role of these industries in supplying over 600,000 jobs and some, albeit limited, consumer products.

Only lately has the Bush administration realized that the war on terror is as much a war on poverty as anything else, and that the most effective tool for combating extremism is to provide jobs. But as the leader of Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ramadi, Jim Soriano, told me when I was there, getting the factory up and running is just the beginning.

“The question is, how do you take the Iraqi economy to the next step? We’ve succeeded in stabilizing things in Ramadi. But where are the big projects that are going to transform the situation on the ground?” said Soriano.

Last month, an Iraqi-hosted conference in Dubai sought to attract $2 billion worth of private investment for factories like the one in Ramadi, but it failed to earn any bids. Similar efforts to lure in companies to build new five-star hotels and power stations – the sort of facilities that can take Iraq to the “next step” – have yet to come to anything.
In the meantime the tiles from the factory in Ramadi quietly pile up in the corner, waiting for the day when the Iraqi economy takes off and leaves fundamentalism behind.

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