By Hamza Hendawi
The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad insisted Tuesday that things are not all bad in Iraq, citing the growing number of satellite dishes on rooftops and consumers with cellphones as signs of economic progress.
"Economically, I see an Iraq every day that I do not think the American people know about, where cellphones and satellite dishes, once forbidden, are now common, where economic reform takes place on a regular basis, where agricultural production is rising dramatically, and where the overall economy and the consumer sector is growing," the U.S. envoy said at a Baghdad news conference.
Some Iraqis see things differently.
"We'd prefer he take those back and return just 10 percent of our prewar life," said Mohammed Ibrahim, 50, a government employee from Baghdad. "Saying things like that shows the Americans' contempt for us Iraqis."
Analogies between conditions in Iraq now and life before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are common among Iraqis, angered over what they see as the failure of successive Iraqi governments and their U.S. backers to provide security, services or jobs.
Khalilzad spoke at one of the lowest points in U.S. involvement in Iraq.
An average of more than 40 Iraqis are being killed every day in October, according to an Associated Press count based on AP reporting and considered a minimum. The violence has forced nearly 1 million Iraqis to flee abroad since 2003, and as many as 300,000 more have become refugees in their own country because of sectarian killings.
Cellphones were introduced in Iraq in 2004 and proved an instant hit, with about 1 million subscribers in the Baghdad area alone. Similarly, satellite dishes, prohibited under Saddam Hussein, also proved popular, and there is hardly a rooftop in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq without at least one.
The advent of the two came as part of the free-market economy that sprang up after Saddam's ouster, filling markets with everything from South American bananas to South Korean electrical goods, Finnish telephones and Iranian biscuits.
But after nearly 13 years of U.N. sanctions that reduced millions of Iraqis to destitution, not everyone was able to enjoy the fruits of the free market. Government employees, about 1 million nationwide, have been the biggest spenders since 2003, thanks to raises of up to 100 percent.
Amrah al-Badawi, a Shiite lawmaker and a member of parliament's economic committee, chuckled when told of Khalilzad's comments.
"Iraqis longed for mobile phones and satellite television, but their availability now are of little relevance to the economy," she said. "What we need is economic ventures, and these are not going to happen with security the way it is."
Without substantial economic activity, Iraqis continue to suffer 30 percent unemployment and double-digit inflation.
The price of gasoline, which is often scarce, has increased 12-fold since 2003. Bread prices are up nearly fivefold and fresh meat by more than 100 percent. Tenuous security means that less farm produce reaches retail markets, causing prices to rise.
Most Iraqis continue to depend on Saddam-era food-ration cards, but many holders say key items such as sugar and rice are sometimes unavailable.
The wide access to satellite dishes and cellphones also holds some unpleasant ironies.
Cellphones have been widely used to set off many of the bombs that kill and maim across much of the country, with U.S. and Iraqi forces their primary victims. Satellite dishes also have enabled Iraqis to watch programs perceived to have anti-U.S. content, such as Qatar-based al-Jazeera television and Hezbollah's al-Manar TV.
Baghdad residents say they are spoiled by the large number of channels available on satellite TV, something that keeps them entertained when they huddle at home, afraid to go out for fear of falling victim to the violence.
But killing time in front of television needs electricity and that's one of Iraq's big postwar problems. Power outages occur daily in Baghdad and can last up to three days.
Khalilzad, however, rejected the analogy some Iraqis use on life before and after Saddam.
"The important fact to keep in mind is that, of course, a lot of innocent Iraqis are getting killed, and that's a source of concern to us and to the Iraqis," he said. "But during Saddam, thousands upon thousands of Iraqis were killed as a result of a government policy."
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Bushra Juhi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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