After two decades of war, Iraq embraces brighter future with Chinese companies' efforts, commitment in reconstruction
Published: Mar 20, 2023 11:01 PM
Exactly two decades after a US-led invasion was launched, Iraq is undergoing tremendous reconstruction on the ruins of war as it tries to heal the wounds from the past. 

In recent years, many Chinese companies have gone to Iraq to join in reconstruction efforts. For these Chinese constructors, this is much more than just a job opportunity or business project, but is a chance to make a meaningful contribution to the local people who have gone through the pain of war.

These Chinese companies are involved in a wide range of reconstruction efforts across Iraq, covering different areas including infrastructure development, the upgrading of transportation systems, home and community reconstruction, and the building of new schools.

The rebuilding of Iraq is a daunting task, but it is one that Chinese companies have embraced with a sense of responsibility and commitment. While being fully aware of the enormous challenges that lie ahead, they are also mindful of the immense opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the Iraqi people.

Ultimately, the rebuilding of Iraq is about more than just a brick-and-mortar exercise. It is about the future of a nation and the hopes and dreams of its people. In interviews with the Global Times, people in charge of Chinese companies in Iraq said that they are honored to be a part of this process, and they are working tirelessly to ensure that the end result offers the nation a better, brighter future.

Taking the duty

Yellow sand, white gulls, and blue waves set the scene as dawn breaks at the peaceful Fao port in Basra province, southern Iraq.

Two decades ago, also on such a spring day, war broke out from this very peninsula of the Persian Gulf.

Today, the ruins which litter the region stand as a mute testament to the ravages of war. 

Once known as the "Venice of the Middle East," Basra has since lost its former prosperity. As the only hub connecting the Persian Gulf and the inland water system in Iraq, the city is eager to return to its former glory in development.

Large construction projects are underway in the city, with sea vessels assisting in various projects. 

Among them are Tianshan and Tianbai, two dredging vessels from China. This is the first phase in the dredging project for Iraq's new port in Fao. Employees of the Tianjin Dredging Co, a subsidiary of the China Communication Construction Co, work alongside locals on the site to pave the way for the arrival and docking of future vessels.

Chinese dredging vessel <em>Tianbai</em> works at the site of Iraq's new port in Fao Photo: Courtesy of Tianjin Dredging Co

Chinese dredging vessel Tianbai works at the site of Iraq's new port in Fao Photo: Courtesy of Tianjin Dredging Co

 This is a key project which will link the port to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

"When our boats arrived at Iraq, we were warmly welcomed by locals who cheered for our team and our big vessels," Wu Lin, project manager at the Tianjin International Marine Engineering Co Ltd, recalled as he recounted arriving at the port in July 2022.

The total area of the harbor basin being dredged is about 3.3 million square meters, and the total engineering volume is about 48 million cubic meters. It is scheduled to be completed in July 2025, at which point the port is expected to be the largest in the Middle East and should help reverse the challenge of Iraq's short coastline and poor port throughput.

According to Wu, since the port is located right where the American army landed 20 years ago, the project has faced many challenges. "There are still bombs left around the area," he said. "We still have to scan the seabed before we start our work to avoid bombs."

The legacy of war in Iraq goes far beyond undetonated explosive devices and stretches to occasional turmoil, chaotic social management, as well as apathy among the local population.

"Iraq has a long and rich history and civilization, but the country was ruined by wars in past decades," Wu told the Global Times. "I have met many hardworking and honest locals here. Those who work on our project work very hard without complaints, wishing to change their country's situation as soon as possible."

Hussein Abdul Ameer Atia is one of the locals who work at the construction site. "Since I can remember, my country has been at war. We lost our jobs and our homes. Everyone is eager for post-war reconstruction and a stable source of income," he said.

He has seen the Iraqi port benefit from Chinese contractors who are dredging out the channels and building roads, restoring life after the port lay dormant for 40 years. "I want to build my country, so I chose to join them," Hussein said.

"Whenever I see a big Chinese ship out at sea, I am full of energy. Every meter that the ship dredges brings us one step closer to our dream. Now my life is full of confidence!" Hussein said excitedly, looking at the port.

Building for the future

Despite having worked on some of the most monumental construction projects in Iraq, Chinese builders can also be spotted in communities working on national projects meant to improve people's livelihoods with infrastructural development.

At the end of 2021, under the witness of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi government signed an agreement with Power China and Sino Tech. The two Chinese companies will help Iraq build 1,000 schools.

This model project is the first in a series of construction projects as per the Iraqi government's plan to build 8,000 new schools, which is also currently one of the country's most urgent civil projects.

As a participant in the execution of the project, Nie Sheng, deputy general manager of the Kuwait Branch at the Sinohydro Engineering Bureau 8 Co Ltd of Power China, arrived in Iraq in February 2022 to conduct research and an initial examination of project sites. 

"When I first came here, I thought this would just be a normal project similar to the ones I did before. I knew that Iraq had experienced the chaos of war, but after seeing it with my own eyes, I realized that the reality was far beyond what I had imagined," Nie told the Global Times.

While traveling in central and northern Iraq, along the roughly 300- to 400-kilometer stretch of road connecting the southern and northern regions, Nie saw many abandoned villages and towns. "Many buildings were half demolished and we saw military forts or checkpoints every 500 meters," he recalled.

Another legacy of two decades of war, Nie learned, was that the education system in the country currently faces numerous challenges. "There is a great shortage of learning facilities. Different grades often have to share one classroom, and students take turns having their lessons," Nie said.

"In one school, I saw students lining up to enter a classroom after another class of students had concluded their lesson," Nie said. "That scene shocked me. I know that many years ago, in some places in China that suffered from extreme poverty, there were such schools as well."

The Sinohydro Engineering Bureau 8 Co Ltd took on the task to build 48 schools, from primary schools to high schools. "The largest could have room for more than 1,000 students. In the future, schools built in communities will benefit children and change the future of the country," said Nie, who is now in charge of the construction project in Wasit Province in Iraq, said.

Wasit Province is located in the southern region of Iraq. The project is set to be a modern-style school that meets the requirements of the Iraqi environment and traditions, which would include water supply and drainage facilities, fire protection, decorations, and water and electricity pipelines connected to the respective cities.

An employee of Power China meets local children in Iraq Photo: Courtesy of Power China

An employee of Power China meets local children in Iraq Photo: Courtesy of Power China

While visiting the school, teachers and some very young students went up to Nie and his colleagues. "They told us that they badly need new schools, and wished that they could be constructed soon. They also took selfies with us, saying that they would share the news that Chinese contractors had arrived to build schools for them with their relatives and friends."

"From that moment on, I no longer saw this project as a business or merely regular work anymore. I gained a strong sense of mission and I now want to build the schools safely to the high possible quality for the locals," Nie said.

Friendship lasts long

China-Iraq exchanges enjoy a long history. The ancient Chinese Mesopotamian civilizations met and got to know each other on the ancient Silk Road. Historical documents record a large number of stories of friendly exchanges between Iraq and China. Iraq is also one of the first Arab countries to join the BRI.

"People here are friendly to us. They also like Chinese products - I have never seen so many Chinese-brand cars in any other foreign country," Nie said.

Since the end of the Iraq War, China has been an important participant and supporter in the recovery and boosting of various sectors such as petrochemicals, energy, and infrastructure construction. Since 2021, Chinese companies such as CITIC Construction, China Power, and China State Construction Engineering have successively signed contracts for multiple large-scale construction projects in Iraq, and the Iraqi engineering market continues to expand.

According to Waleed Khaled Mfatan, a 32-year-old Iraqi security engineer working with Nie: "Chinese people are good friends to the Iraqi people. Chinese companies have brought help to the reconstruction of Iraq, brought hope to Iraq, and provided a lot of jobs for the Iraqi people," he told the Global Times.

Zheng Jianli contributed to the story