NAJAF, 29 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - After years of suppression under the regime of Saddam Hussein and fighting between local militias and occupation forces since 2003, the city of Najaf has finally begun to enjoy the fruits of development.
One of the holiest sites in the world for Shi'ite Muslims, Najaf was substantially destroyed during fighting between US forces and the Sadr militia in August 2004. Today, however, the city shows signs of reconstruction and development as pilgrims begin returning en masse to the tombs of revered Shi'ite holy men.
According to some officials, Najaf is now considered one of the safest places in Iraq, despite ongoing violence elsewhere.
"A partnership between residents and the government has brought development and made Najaf the most secure city countrywide," said Kamal Abbas, a senior official at the interior ministry.
Local security forces have been providing protection for residents and visitors since US and UK military forces left the city four months ago, in accordance with an agreement hammered out with local religious leaders.
"They left our city to prevent more problems and death and, ever since, reconstruction has progressed quickly," noted Abbas. "Hundreds of houses have been repaired and many shops rebuilt after the fighting in 2004."
The US military, in partnership with foreign companies and the Iraqi government, has taken the lead in the local reconstruction effort. In fact, US forces are only allowed in the city if they are taking part in reconstruction projects.
According to Maruan Hussein, a senior official in the Najaf governorate, the withdrawal of foreign forces has both averted the emergence of insurgency in Najaf and allowed more funding to be invested in rebuilding.
"Improvements in security have allowed more money to be allocated to reconstruction," Hussein said. "Before, thousands of dollars were being spent on security, and now companies are searching for projects here because it's the safest place in Iraq."
Better quality of life
Locals say that the combination of stability, reconstruction and investment has led to better education, health care and general quality of life.
"Najaf shows a degree of revitalisation never seen before," said Bassam Darwish, a local shopkeeper whose shop, destroyed during the fighting in 2004, was rebuilt by the US military. "We have power, clean water and good health services, which were suppressed during the Saddam years."
Until recently, certain districts of Najaf received less than three hours of electricity daily. Today, however, most homes enjoy more than 20 hours of power every day.
Roads linking outlying districts to local schools, largely destroyed in earlier fighting, have also been repaired in the past two months.
According to officials at the Ministry of Education, infrastructure improvements have led to an increase in school attendance, with thirty percent more children attending primary school than in 2004.
"Our children are more interested in studying and more concerned about the future of the country," said Zaineb Hashuan, a senior ministry official. "It's a good sign."
Local health, too, has improved considerably thanks to recent development.
"We have reached a good state of health in our city," said Dr Hassan Azize, a clinician at Najaf's main hospital. "Pharmacies are full of medicines, and new examination equipment is working day and night to decrease disease in our city to almost zero."
Reconstruction work is largely being paid for by the US and Iraqi governments with funds allocated to national reconstruction.
"US $40 million have been allocated for water, sewage systems and electricity," said Hussein. "And another US $20 million will go towards health and education projects."
Given Najaf's newfound reputation for security, investors are reportedly queuing up to take advantage of the city's historical tourism potential.
With some three million pilgrims visiting the holy city every year and bringing badly needed foreign currency, local government officials say Najaf's development prospects are looking bright.
"Millions of dollars are being invested to turn this city into the most modern and successful tourist site in the Middle East," said Hussein.
According to Hussein, US $125 million have been allocated for a tourism complex near the city, which will be designed to accommodate thousands of tourists and pilgrims. A plan to build a number of restaurants and five-star hotels is awaiting final approval from the Najaf governor.
The construction of an international airport is also underway, located only minutes from the city centre. The US $73-million contract, signed with a UK-based company, stipulates that the airport must hire local residents rather than foreigners.
The governments of Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Jordan have already offered air services to the planned Najaf airport.
Additionally, a Kuwaiti company has pledged more than $1 million for the creation of a rail system connecting Najaf to its sister holy city, Kerbala.
Residents, meanwhile, are sanguine about their city's prospects.
"God is blessing Najaf, and soon it will be the most developed governorate in Iraq," said Darwish.
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