BAGHDAD — In 2004, the 330-mile trip by car from Baghdad south to Basra, Iraq could take sixteen hours or more, often spanning two days of travel. At that time, the road had several stretches of broken pavement in terrible condition that could go on for miles. In some areas it was little more than a poorly marked path in the desert. This road, Highway 1, is Iraq’s most important transportation artery. It links Iraq’s third largest city, a port the Persian Gulf, with the large population centers in central Iraq.
The road was originally constructed in the mid-20th century as a showpiece of the modern prosperous Arab nation. Today it finally stands again as an unbroken well-serviced superhighway, and the travel time between these vital Iraqi cities is a much more agreeable five hours.
The highway is one of the most visible examples of reconstruction after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s government by the U.S.-led coalition. However, many other efforts to bring infrastructure in Iraq to global standards made only sporadic progress for many years. After the fall of the Hussein government, the U.S. administration and subsequent Iraqi governments made improvement and repair of the nation’s infrastructure a top priority.
But for much of the following decade, government instability and a persistent insurgent campaign continued to disrupt progress. In many cases, officials diverted far more funds to security than anticipated, leaving infrastructure projects to languish. Iraqi officials estimated in 2006 that reconstruction would require $100 billion in infrastructure spending. By 2011, spending had exceeded that figure, with many projects still unfulfilled.
Since that time, circumstances have improved as insurgent forces reduced operations against the Baghdad government. Progress accelerated further in the past year as the country regains control of territory from the Islamic State (IS).
Funding for Infrastructure Spending
One year ago, a Japanese initiative began an $80 million project to improve local water systems in Basra, the southern port at the end of Highway 1. Then in January 2017, General Electric announced that it would begin a $1.4 billion project to add or reconnect over 3 gigawatts of power to the Iraqi national power grid. Just last week on November 7, the World Bank announced an additional $400 million in infrastructure spending focused on rebuilding areas retaken from IS occupation.
These funds are in addition to $350 million approved in 2015 to rebuild municipal services in the country. All of these efforts have come under the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who came to power after parliamentary elections in the summer of 2014.
Iraq is the fourth largest nation in the Middle East by population and has the world’s fifth largest proven petroleum reserves. For large portions of the last century, infrastructure in Iraq was some of the most sophisticated in the Middle East. High oil prices in the 1970s in particular led to spending on modern sewer, water and highway projects in the greater Baghdad area.
Years of Conflict
However, decades of war and political instability since the 1980s severely damaged the infrastructure and public institutions necessary to translate these resources into an increased standard of living for most Iraqis.
Beginning in 1980 with the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein’s government diverted much of the wealth that had formerly propelled civil society into military spending. Years of sanctions that followed the 1990-1991 conflict with Kuwait and the U.S.-led international coalition also severely eroded infrastructure in Iraq. At the same time, the U.S. and allied nations conducted a continuous campaign of bombing through the 1990s and into the 21st century.
After the 1991 conflict sparked separatist movements in minority areas of the country, Iraq’s central government largely ignored areas outside of the core Sunni heartland near Baghdad until the government’s fall in 2003.
But as the years go by, the nation works to continually improve its infrastructure, and therefore the convenience and quality of life of its people.
– Paul Robertson