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02 March 2024

Iraqi ministry looks for investors

Amer Abduljabbar Ismail says the ministry's budget is only $450m. (AFP)


Iraq's transport infrastructure is on the road to recovery after decades of neglect but funding is inadequate and the transport minister is seeking outside investors.

Factionalism and corruption was rife when Amer Abduljabbar Ismail took the helm at a government department considered to be one of the most dysfunctional in the war-battered country, the minister said.

"It looked like a group of gangs and militias," he said, adding that at one point the skills shortage was such that nearly half the workforce only had a primary education. Now Ismail has the ministry moving forward again and signed a preliminary deal with Air France-KLM, which will see Iraqi Airways taking off for European destinations and Baghdad's airport being renovated.

Topping his ambitious list of projects that also includes revamping the nation's bombed out and looted railway network is a $4.4 billion (Dh16.1bn) container port in Iraq's Al Fao in the south.

Despite initial successes the ministry's budget of $450 million is far too small to fulfil Ismail's Iraq's basic transport needs, Ismail said.

"We don't have enough money for our projects, so we will have to go to outside investors for funding," he said, adding that he is already in talks with potential investors from Turkey, Germany and Denmark.

To get this far Ismail, 47, a rotund and small man with 25 years of professional experience in the freight and logistics industry, has had to hone his political cunning as well as wielding his business know-how.

He was not allowed to fire people outright due to the huge unemployment in Baghdad, but the ministry of 45,000 employees still needed to slim down by 30 per cent to be efficient.

So he tore apart the ministry's hierarchy instead, moving many self-appointed officials to posts where they could do the least harm and at the same time he implemented rigorous accounting regulations to curtail theft.

It was not a popular move.

"Each person I fired from their position meant that other officials would come to visit me to beg me to bring them back to work," the politically unaffiliated minister said with a sigh.

Ismail's ministry has the unwieldy task of rebuilding a heavily damaged transport system that includes airports, the national airline, ports and buses, and about 2,000 kilometres of rails.

In the five months since Ismail took office he has quietly but determinedly tried to turn the corner of the ministry that had been brought almost to a halt by a decade of sanctions followed by war and sectarian strife.

"The most difficult time was when there was no minister for nearly two years between 2005 and 2007," he said, adding that turf wars were still common.

Since taking the helm, Ismail has more than doubled revenues in the national bus system by implementing a simple change in the ticketing system that stopped employees pocketing money from ticket sales.

He also convinced some international shipping groups to take sailors from the ministry's marine shipping company. About 1,500 merchant marines had no work because their ships had all been destroyed in the war.

A top priority for the ministry is to ensure the nation's transport system is expanded at the same time as it gets back on its feet.