AL HILLAH, Iraq -- The top coalition official in Iraq told Iraqis the country has an enormous opportunity to develop its agriculture in the wake of Saddam Hussein's displaced regime.
L. Paul Bremmer, the United States administrator to Iraq, spoke at a regional agricultural summit June 8 held at the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Coalition officials from Baghdad met with local agricultural leaders and coalition civil affairs personnel.
Bremmer told the group that the coalition's top priority is to restart the Iraqi economy. A strong economic recovery for the country is essential for the Iraqi people to feel the benefit of freedom, he said.
To achieve this, the coalition will focus on creating jobs and stimulating agricultural growth.
The process has already begun, Bremmer said. He flew Sunday from Baghdad to Al Hillah for the conference and saw field after field of crops being harvested and livestock grazing. He also saw irrigation canals and ditches carrying water to dry places.
"We saw farmers going back to business," Bremmer said.
Friday's conference was the first regional summit to examine agricultural issues in Iraq.
Coalition representatives Trevor Flugge and Lee Shatz, who are working with the Ministry of Agriculture in Baghdad, attended the event and spoke to the group as well.
"We are here as advisors to the Iraqi people, not to make decisions," Flugge said. "(Decisions) must be made by Iraqis."
The goal is to establish a sustainable market-oriented agricultural system, he said.
Now, none of the country's agriculture is market-driven, Shatz said. It is a dysfunctional system that, before the war, was dependant on the government to guarantee that the farmers would participate.
According to Shatz, the government would tell farmers what to grow, provide seeds, fertilizer, pesticide and insecticide and then buy the products from the farmers at harvest time.
The fall of the regime is an opportunity to change that so that farmers do all these things for themselves.
"The system of top-down government took nobody's needs into consideration," Shatz said.
All it did was do things as they had always been done before, with the government providing seed, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides and other items. It also told people what to grow when, and bought the farmers' products.
Farm producers will be faced with making decisions based on what they want to grow. This will require that farmers learn about the new system and make wise choices.
However, the subsidies can't stop right away, officials recognize.
"It will be a phased change, but it will be a change," Shatz said.
When they arrived, coalition forces found the agriculture building in Baghdad had been looted and key records had been destroyed, Flugge said.
The current farming program suffered during the last 10 years of sanctions. It only has a small number of people assigned to go to the local level and teach in extension programs.
To learn about new agricultural systems, students must travel outside of Iraq to learn about other ways of doing things and new technology.
Exacerbating the problem is that half of Iraq's farmers are illiterate, according to the group. Those farmers relied on the government tell them what to plant and what materials to use.
At the close of the conference, Trevor Flugge, from the ministry of agriculture in Baghdad, stressed that the Iraqi people will be responsible for their future.
Their team is trying to get the ministry running and renew communication with the local stakeholders. The conference was meant to take that first step.