There is no getting around the security issue in any serious discussion about Iraq’s economic situation. And because security is as much about perception as anything – a feeling based on confidence about the safety of one’s self and of one's assets – it is difficult to assess in any real way.
Any given judgement on Iraq’s current security profile and future outlook can be highly dependent on the day, week or month. There was a palpable sense of relief during the first half of the holy month of Ramadan this year that things had been relatively peaceful. Then, on August 15, a series of blasts in several cities across the country killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds more, causing immediate alarmist speculation in the US and UK media about a possible return to the dark pre-'surge' days of 2005 and 2006.
Cooler heads suggest that despite legitimate worries over the Iraqi security forces’ capabilities to keep a lid on violence as the US and its allies stand down, the broader trends are more encouraging than such grisly scenes of sporadic if horrific outbreaks of violence might suggest. The number of security incidents has been falling for years and continues to do so.
An improved situation
“I think it is safe to say that the overall security situation has improved steadily since 2003 and there is certainly a marked improvement since the height of insurgent activity just a few years ago,” says Andrew Edwards, managing director of security firm Consilium Risk Strategies, who has lived and worked in Iraq for eight and a half years.
“Attacks against multinational security forces have declined considerably and foreign nationals travelling to Iraq on business can take great comfort from the fact that conditions have very much improved since terrorist attention seems to have been directed elsewhere, and criminal activity seems to be being managed effectively by Iraqi security forces,” he continues, while adding an inevitable caveat: “Does this mean I would walk the streets of Iraq’s major cities alone, travel without adequate security, or stay in an ‘insecure’ facility? Absolutely not.”
Security is not only relative to time, but also place, and so companies putting resources into a still-volatile Iraq have to choose their bases of operation carefully.
Mr Edwards’ colleague Ian Hearne, director for Middle East & Asia at Consilium, points out that misperceptions linger over how companies can keep staff safe in Iraq, and many do themselves no favours, for example, by clustering inside the International Zone, or ‘Green Zone’, in Baghdad, which they believe to be a safe haven.
“The fact is that while the US Embassy, the biggest in the world, remains protected by Iraq’s version of the Berlin wall, it will always be a target [for insurgents]. The International Zone continues to have mortar and rocket attacks on almost a daily basis,” says Mr Hearne. This is causing many firms to venture out to secure compounds in Baghdad's Red Zone instead.
US troops are set to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, and a debate continues as to whether the Iraqi government will ask that some – and if so, in what numbers – stay behind to lend support and training. Terrorist groups are bound to attempt to exploit Iraq's uncertainty, while its oil infrastructure, because of its importance to the country’s economy, is a hot target for those looking to destabilise its path to recovery.
In February, Iraq’s largest refinery, at Baiji in the north of the country, was bombed, killing a handful of workers and shutting it down for a few crucial, costly days. Such events only serve to remind those working in Iraq of the ever-present risk of terrorist activity and the need for well-trained security staff around the country's more high-profile targets.