A half-billion-dollar effort to showcase Iraq’s holiest Shia city to the world is coming down to the wire as many contracts remain unsigned and funds are being hastily re-allocated.
Preparations for Najaf to become the Arab world’s Islamic Capital of Culture next year are underway, but officials involved in its planning admit that time is short and much remains to be done.
"We don’t have enough time, we need more time," says Nizar Hussein Al-Naffakh, a Najaf provincial council member and one of the event’s organizers.
"We only started work at the end of last year and Najaf will become the Islamic capital of culture from January 1, 2012."
"There are real obstacles but we hope to overcome them in order to show our city in the most positive light," he adds.
The Najaf celebrations are part of broad efforts by Iraqi authorities to put the country back on the cultural map, after the US-led invasion of 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein led to years of brutal sectarian war.
Iraq is due to host an Arab League summit, initially scheduled for March 29 but now delayed until the end of May due to regional unrest.
Football’s Gulf Cup is also to be held in the southern port of Basra in 2013, the same year that Baghdad becomes the Arab capital of culture.
"These kinds of events, they are like the Olympic Games," says Amman-based UNESCO cultural expert Tamara Teneishvili.
"They always contribute to the development of infrastructure and they provide wide international exposure. This is very important," she adds.
In 2009 the culture ministers of Muslim countries chose Najaf as one of three Islamic cultural capitals in 2012 along with Dhaka for Asia and Niamey for Africa.
The year-long festivities include conferences covering topics ranging from the legacy of Imam Ali, to whom a major shrine is dedicated in the city, to modern-day Islamophobia.
Imam Ali, a seventh century Islamic leader who was a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed, is revered among Shia Muslims as the first imam of the Shia order, as well as being a military leader and writer.
Authorities are also planning to translate 200 works of Islamic literature into English and French, as well as recitals of traditional Islamic music, though there will be no dance performances.
The overall budget for the Najaf ceremonies, including capital investment and cultural activities, is 537 billion Iraqi dinars ($455 million).
But of more than 70 projects that have been planned to get Najaf ready — ranging from a $100-million cultural complex to new waste treatment facilities — a fifth have not yet been assigned to contractors.
The cultural complex, comprised of a 44,000-square meter building and 115,000 square meters of landscape, is on time, said Turkish site supervisor Oguz Duzendur says.
Its roof is due to be completed by mid-May when the number of workers on the project will quadruple to 600 and operations run around the clock to complete the "cultural city," a single building that includes a 1,500-seat conference hall and a 750-seat theater as well as a library and a museum.
According to Aqeel Al-Mindalawi, an Iraqi culture ministry official who is part of the 10-member committee responsible for organizing the Najaf 2012 celebrations, the complex will be handed over at the end of the year.
But he admits that a contingency planning is underway in case it is not.
"If the cultural city is not ready by the end of the year, we will set up a temporary site in the Sea of Najaf," he says, referring to a swathe of agricultural land that abuts the holy city.
"We have alternative plans, but we are still optimistic."
Several other projects designed to upgrade Najaf’s infrastructure and that of twin city Kufa, however, either will not be ready for the start of next year, or are slated to be completed just before the ceremonies begin.
Of two major highways being constructed, one will be finished at the end of this year while the other will be ready in early 2012, while plans to upgrade Najaf’s roads have been slowed by delayed improvements to the city’s sewage system, according to Mindalawi.
He blames a combination of Saddam-era administrative regulations and new rules that require a public call for bids for projects, both of which he said took too much time.
Further complicating matters is the sudden prospect of local elections this year, with delays to the formation of a national government following March 2010 elections having already set back the Najaf planning.
In response to massive nationwide protests railing against corruption, poor public services and unemployment, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has backed early provincial polls for this year.
An ambitious $170-million cultural program has also been scaled back as money has had to be diverted to capital investment to upgrade the city’s infrastructure and hotels.
In particular, funds have been redirected to build a five-star hotel after private investors pulled out of plans to build two such facilities in the city.
Indeed, one of the mooted benefits of the Najaf festivities — increased tourism — is limited by the lack of spare hotel capacity.
Among Najaf’s 170-odd hotels and hostels is just one four-star facility, with overall city-wide capacity barely able to accommodate the thousands of Shia pilgrims, mostly Iranian, visiting on a daily basis, principally to see the Imam Ali shrine.
The Najaf chamber of commerce expects 100,000 more tourists to visit the city for the 2012 ceremonies and notes few new hotels will be ready in time to accommodate the flow.
Officials are drawing up contingency plans, including one to ferry VIPs from up-scale hotels in Baghdad on day trips to Najaf, 150 kilometers south.
"There are several back-up plans," Mindalawi says, chuckling. "We have to — in Iraq, we have to."