Thursday, May 31, 2012

Double-Decker Red Bus in Baghdad


Common across Baghdad in years past, red double-decker buses are again plying the Iraqi capital's traffic-choked streets after many were ransacked in the years of unrest following the 2003 invasion.
The brand-new red buses with long white and black stripes on their sides began limited operations on Saturday, making halting progress amid masses of taxis and pedestrians in central Baghdad.
They have metal floors and plastic seats that are comfortable enough, though somewhat cramped for taller passengers. Air conditioning keeps the buses cool in spite of the Baghdad heat, which will only worsen in the summer months.
One bus was packed with boisterous Iraqis who were pleased by the features, especially the air conditioning.

"With this comfort, I will stay here enjoying the air conditioning and won't get off until the electricity generators start working in our area," joked Kadhim Karim, a 31-year-old musician.
"The new bus contains all the amenities, including air conditioning and cleanliness," said Kadhim Saba Rasan, 57, a government employee.
Only 70 buses have so far been bought from a Jordanian firm -- 60 double-deckers and 10 single-storey buses -- but 100 more are expected to be added later this year, said Adel al-Saadi, the director general of the state-owned firm responsible for public transport.
Even at its peak before the 2003 US-led invasion, the Baghdad bus network was a limited one. Its 300 buses at the time pale in comparison to the 8,500 that ply London's streets, according to the British capital's public transport authority.

This despite the fact that London's population of seven million is not vastly greater than Baghdad's six million residents.
The firm providing Baghdad with the buses, Jordan-based Elba House, first made its name constructing pre-fabricated buildings, but since 1992 has also built a variety of vehicles, including buses.
Each double-decker bus costs around $205,000.
Tickets for the buses are 500 Iraqi dinars, about 40 cents, offering a far more comfortable alternative to the cramped minibuses that criss-cross the city, and one that is cheaper than the fleets of mustard-yellow taxis.
"The new buses are very successful and better than taxis, which cost at least five or six thousand dinars ($4-$5)," said Mohammed Samir, an 18-year-old policeman.
Security remains a key priority in a city where brutal sectarian bloodshed killed countless residents, partitioned off key neighbourhoods and badly damaged Baghdad's infrastructure in the years following the invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
The buses are equipped with cameras that allow the driver to monitor both floors of the interior, and Saadi said that each bus driver will work with an assistant whose role it will be to monitor the vehicle for signs of explosives and to search each passenger getting on the bus.
But while an assistant collecting fares was present on one of the buses, many passengers were not searched.
Samir, the policeman, said that he thought it would be better if they were searched.
Smoking, which is banned on the new buses, is another challenge -- one passenger lit up soon after sitting down on the upper deck of the bus, and the numerous cigarette butts in the trash bin indicated that he was not alone.
In the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq, while many people stayed at home and government buildings were all but shut, the red double-decker buses would still traverse the city from 7:00 am every day.
As worsening violence racked the city, many bus drivers transformed their vehicles into ad hoc taxis, ambulances and hearses. Over time, though, looting and pillaging across Baghdad eventually targeted the city's buses.
Rasan, who said he had ridden Baghdad's old double-decker buses and now on one of the new buses as well, described the style of bus as a fixture of the Iraqi capital.
"These buses are a beautiful means of transport and represent a part of the history of Baghdad," he said
Latest Iraqi related news from:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Najaf Investment Boom

Baghdad Invest - 08/05/2012 Baghdad.
With its sweeping highway, solar-powered street lights and plethora of hotels, the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf is a beacon for investment in Iraq, outshining other areas where projects have been slow to take off.
Virtually every economic sector in the country needs funding and attention to redevelop crumbling facilities that were neglected during decades of war and financial sanctions.
Foreign and local investors are eager to participate in rebuilding the country but complain that bureaucracy, a weak banking sector, poor legislation and a lack of land allocated for projects are huge deterrents.
Out of 780 investment licenses worth $32 billion granted to businessmen around the country since 2008, only about 30 percent of the projects have been started, according to Sami al-Araji, head of the National Investment Commission.
But the southern city of Najaf, the capital of a province with the same name, offers hope. Its success in pushing through projects suggests that with the right policies, obstacles can be overcome, and it may be an early sign of an investment boom in the country as a whole.
In fact, Najaf has become something of a model for other provinces; officials from elsewhere in Iraq look to it for guidance on issues such as how to allocate land for projects and how to work around the inefficiencies of the banking system.
Over 50 percent of about licensed 200 investment projects totaling $8 billion are under construction in Najaf province, with most development coming in the housing and tourism sectors, said Najaf Investment Commission chairman Wafy al-Bahash.
Home to the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shi'ite Muslims' most revered sites, Najaf city receives millions of pilgrims annually. The provincial investment commission has awarded 51 licenses for hotels alone to try to accommodate the influx of visitors.
Drive through the relatively clean city and you will spot boards hanging from lamp posts that read '2012 Al-Najaf: The capital of Islamic culture'. Towering cranes overshadow many streets and construction sites are filled with workers, in contrast to other provinces where half-finished buildings lie deserted.
One of the major projects in Najaf is a $25 million, five-star hotel being built by Iraqi firm Alkhawarnaq Palace. With 10 floors and a revolving restaurant at the top, the hotel is expected to be completed by the end of 2013. Construction started in April 2011.
A typical example of a Najaf project is a $7 million deal, funded by three local investors, to build 134 houses on the outskirts of the city. Construction started in April 2011 and is expected to be completed within another year. More than three-quarters of the units have been sold, and a family moved into the first house two months ago.
By comparison, in the neighboring province of Babil, infighting between officials has delayed development of at least one building for two years.
"The investor has been waiting for two years for a decision from two directorates in the same ministry. One is insisting on a two-floor building, while the other wants a single-storey building," said Alaa Ibrahim Harba, chairman of Babylon Investment Commission.
In the western province of Anbar, investors have been waiting since last year for approval to build a fertilizer factory worth $800 million.
"It was delayed because it was sent from the governate to the central government and it's taking a lot of time there for approval," Anbar investment commission head Amer Awadh told Reuters. "We have preliminary approval but not final approval."
Iraq's economy is still very state-centric, and a weak credit culture has hampered development. Investors say a lack of laws and guarantees also makes working in the country, once a Middle Eastern breadbasket, extremely difficult.
At a recent investment conference in parliament attended by Araji and all of Iraq's provincial investment commission heads, officials openly admitted they needed to intensify efforts to improve the business environment.
A key problem is a backlog of projects awaiting approval from the central government. Provincial officials say they should be given more authority to work with investors.
Baghdad has awarded 70 licenses of which seven projects are in the works, documents showed. In Maysan, Wasit and Diyala, out of every 10 investment projects licensed in each province, work has started at only three or fewer.
"We should minimize the routine and bureaucracy in granting investment licenses," Awadh told the conference. "We are losing big opportunities to other countries because of these problems and many other issues."
Rising tensions within Iraq's fragile coalition government of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds has hampered work and delayed approval of many laws, such as a long-anticipated hydrocarbons law which is crucial for the oil sector.
Policy-making is also paying the price of decades of economic isolation. Many officials are unused to moving at the speed demanded by foreign investors, and even when new legislation is passed, it can take months to be understood and implemented within the government.
Bahash says the key to Najaf's success has been close cooperation between the province's investment commission and the local governate, with officials taking the initiative to tackle problems rather than wait for a national directive.
"The governor and members of the provincial council are cooperating with us; they support our investment steps, and that has not happened in other provinces," Bahash said.
Razzaq Shareef, deputy governor of Najaf, said the province had seen so many projects take off because it had a strict policy that any investor granted a license had to pay 10 percent of the project's costs upfront as a guarantee that it would meet its commitments.
The rule has proved successful with both local and foreign investors, and is now being rolled out in other provinces following an order from the central government, Shareef said.
Iraq has a target under its five-year economic development plan of attracting $85 billion in investment by 2014. Luring pledges of that amount of money looks likely to be relatively easy; translating them into concrete projects on the ground may require educating many more government officials in Najaf's approach.
"The help from the central (government) is limited in this field," said Anbar investment commission head Awadh. "Some officials don't even understand the culture of investment. Even at the level of a minister."
Latest Iraqi related news from: