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FROM DICTATORSHIP TO DEVELOPMENT

Rome wasn't built in a day, and Baghdad hasn't come back in a year.

On a clear day the civilian flights into Baghdad seem almost to hover over the runway before corkscrewing down to land. On descent, defense contractors, relief workers, and others onboard gain stomach-churning, concentric views of the landscape they have come to master. It's a baked-clay desert stretching endlessly to the horizon, save for three palace compounds visible from the air near the runways. Icons to Saddam's self-absorption, they are typical of the 70 or so he built around Iraq -- octagonal atria, marble expanses, vast halls and ramparts surrounded by lakes and moats.

As the sheer enormity of each complex comes gradually into view, aid workers see perhaps the first real evidence of the work cut out for them. War didn't destroy this country but Saddam Hussein did.

Consider:

• Annual per capita income fell from a high of $2,500 in 1979 to under $1,000 in 2001.

• Electrical output fell from 5,500 average megawatts in 1992 to 4,400 in 2002.

• Under Saddam child mortality rates rose from 83 (per 1,000 live births) in 1980 to 125 in 1998.

The task of rebuilding a nation, one caught beneath the heel of a dictator and at war with someone or another for the last 25 years, is at once elemental and enormous. With the country preparing for its first Liberation Day April 9, Iraqis are fond of saying that with each new day, the good news gets better and the bad news gets worse.

For pilot Chris Erasmus, the route to Baghdad is a cakewalk compared to other war zones. "The airfield is flat and open. In Afghanistan we were plagued with the high altitude and bad weather."

Capt. Erasmus and his co-pilot, Rudolph Van Eden, fly the Amman-to-Baghdad route every day, and sometimes twice. Their employer is AirServ, a rare transport service that is both nonprofit and non-government. After someone fired a surface-to-air missile at a DHL freight plane on take-off from Baghdad's international airport late last year, AirServ found itself the only game in town. DHL escaped a lethal SAM hit but the incident grounded all nonmilitary flights except AirServ. Civilian contractors, relief workers, and a few journalists clamored for space on its 19-seaters to avoid the hazardous overland trek to Baghdad.

U.S. Air Force controllers, who monitor the airspace into Baghdad, permitted AirServ flights because its crews were already battle-tested. In addition to flying aid workers into Afghanistan, Capts. Erasmus and Van Eden have flown in Angola and Rwanda -- hot spots more challenging than the wide-open spaces and paved runways of Baghdad International. When UN headquarters were bombed last year, AirServ went to work alongside the military, evacuating about two dozen wounded to Jordan.

With the DHL hit a distant memory, AirServ pilots hold fast nonetheless to wartime tactics to avoid missile threats. They fly directly over the airport at about 15,000 feet, nose the plane down, bank it to 45 degrees, and spiral in for about 20 rotations to land. "It's quite safe," says Erwin Temmerman, AirServ's country director, "but no fun for the passengers."

Every day Central Command in Qatar e-mails slots to the pilots, designating a flight path (so they won't be shot down) and permission to land. Each slot comes with a disclaimer, Mr. Temmerman said. All flights -- no matter how humanitarian -- are entering a war zone. "It's our responsibility to make it in and out safely," he said. Asked if he's ever been fired on, Capt. Erasmus says, "We don't know. All I can say is we've never been hit."

AirServ is emblematic of hundreds of nonprofit groups and for-profit contractors at work in Iraq since the end of major combat. Figuratively speaking, they labor like modern-day Nehemiahs: one hand on a shovel, the other holding a spear.

To succeed they must fly below the radar, avoiding the sort of high profile that will lead to their becoming a terrorist target. At the same time they need the occasional splash to win financial and moral support back home and in the streets of Baghdad.

Some, like the troops, have been on the ground for a year enduring the regular water shortages, the blackouts, and the traffic snarls. Unlike the troops, most have to hire a security detail. Here where it matters most, their work is impervious to Washington battles du jour -- WMD intel, terrorist connections, coalition solidarity -- because the work simply must be done. They are racing against the clock, hoping to "revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish" before a June 30 handover to a new Iraqi government. At a Baghdad press conference on March 29, U.S. administrator Paul Bremer announced 2,300 new contracts for Iraq and predicted that 50,000 Iraqis will have jobs under U.S.-supported civilian contracts by the handover date.

"Reconstruction is going exceptionally well," said a U.S. official in Baghdad who, citing security reasons, asked not to be identified. "The vast majority of Iraqis appreciate what the United States is doing. But the population is deliberately fragmented, the element of distrust that works in favor of a dictator is still there."

Wartime damage -- downed bridges, burst water mains, cratered roads -- has been compounded by longer-term neglect of the country's infrastructure. With some power grids down, sewage systems overflowing, and oil supplies disrupted, macro-development has required macro-attention from civilian authorities for the last year -- and $20 billion in U.S. supplemental funding.

(Other sources have agreed to pony up also. The UN's now scandalized Oil for Food program has in recent months returned proceeds from oil export sales, about $1 billion out of $60 billion still unaccounted for; the U.S. Treasury has released for humanitarian projects nearly $2 billion in frozen assets from Saddam-tainted accounts in U.S. banks; and funds seized by coalition forces in Iraq already have been turned to development projects.)

Working with California-based contractor Bechtel, for example, the coalition has restored electricity, for several months now surpassing Iraq's pre-war power levels. That means most Iraqis have power, but not all the time. Three hours on/three hours off rotation cycles continue, a policy insiders call "sharing the pain" to avoid widespread blackouts. With Iraq's electricity ministry awarding contracts worth $3 billion to build new power stations and upgrade existing ones, planners hope for full-fledged, on-demand power by year's end.

Likewise oil production is underway with a cooperative effort from international firms working under both Iraq's new oil ministry and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In Kirkuk's heavily guarded oilfields, workers use mostly 1950s-era machinery to pump 500,000 barrels per day for delivery via a recently repaired pipeline to the Mediterranean. To rev the northern fields to produce at just above half capacity, engineers put out fires, recovered more than $14 million in stolen equipment, and remapped pipeline grids that were sabotaged or had fallen dormant under Saddam.

In the south, a Bethesda contractor is working with an Iraqi-owned nonprofit to restore marshlands. Once famously drained by Saddam to flush out Marsh Arabs who opposed his regime, the wetlands project is restoring not only ecological balance but also fisheries and agribusiness potential. "The oil industry is not the economic base for most Iraqis, whereas agriculture is," said the U.S. official.

In some cases, multimillion-dollar contracts make it harder for smaller charities to find a meaningful place in Iraq's restoration. But gaps abound for private niche nonprofits, including Christian relief groups, if they can successfully navigate the CPA's contract gantlet. Many humanitarian organizations, particularly European-based groups, fled after the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad last August and again after terrorists bombed Red Cross offices in October. They vacated important social-service needs like healthcare, education, and small-business development.

In the north one newcomer, Health Care Partnerships, borrowed a strategy that's worked in rural Appalachia to spread medical care across isolated regions where more than 2 million Iraqis live. Working with CPA, the Tennessee group is donating 45 satellite systems to link healthcare officials with medical schools, hospitals, and rural health clinics. This month the group is installing transmission repeaters atop northern Iraq's mountains to connect the system. "This place will be better wired than France," said field operations director Douglas Layton.

Once the system is complete, healthcare workers will pool medical expertise and consult across the region on everything from a diagnosis to cancer screening to pharmaceutical supplies. It's a system that can be expanded to serve schools and local governments, as well as other regions.

"We are trying to avoid the mistakes of most NGOs who put band-aids on broken systems and waste money on seminars," said Mr. Layton. He hires locals to run the projects and subcontracts with Iraqi charities -- including churches -- to further improve care. Health Care Partnerships recently donated equipment for a mobile dental clinic to the National Evangelical Church in Kirkuk. The church plans to run the clinic as an outreach ministry serving isolated villages and to share costs with local governments. The church is also jump-starting citywide garbage collection using church volunteers and U.S. donations.

"When I came back to Kirkuk it reminded me of a little old sick lady," said former pastor Yussif Matty, who was forced to leave his hometown after the Gulf War. "In 12 years it had had no sanitation, no improvements to infrastructure, in this, what should be one of the richest cities in the world."

For Mr. Matty, and most Iraqis, tangible challenges occasionally give way to intangible hope. He was forced to serve 10 years in Saddam's army, a prospect his own son won't have to face. He lives in a poor city that with help might one day, he says, be rich again.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.