By REBECCA SANTANA
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; 5:24 PM
ABU TUBAR, Iraq -- In a smoky room adorned with a few faded photos of religious leaders past, Maj. Jake Kulzer sits on a rug drinking Pepsi, a line of Iraqi men opposite him in dust-covered white robes, fingering prayer beads.
Kulzer, 34, of Minneapolis, left his body armor and helmet in his Humvee in a gesture of respect to his Iraqi hosts in this southern town.
The scene of American forces sitting casually with Iraqis is a rare sight in many parts of Iraq, especially in dangerous Baghdad and Anbar province, where the little that American troops see of the country is usually through bulletproof glass.
In the relative quiet of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division is moving forward with ambitious reconstruction efforts, planning to spend $15 million in a yearlong deployment compared to $2 million spent by the units it replaced over the previous 18 months.
Their efforts, since they arrived in April, have centered on bringing water to the region.
Two reverse osmosis plants have been completed, each providing drinking water to 5,000 people. The brigade also is working on an irrigation system for 15,000 acres of parched land. The previous system fell into disrepair following the April 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The brigade _ a National Guard unit from Minnesota in which Kulzer is responsible for civil military operations like reconstruction _ plans to start on a project by the end of the year to bring electricity to certain areas.
The projects are an effort to provide jobs to people who might otherwise join militias and sectarian gangs for money, a problem seen in the southern city of Basra, where British forces repeatedly have clashed with militants.
"Just being nice doesn't get us anything," said Kulzer. "Why do people join the insurgents? Are they ideological fanatics? Absolutely not ... If we have good employment, the militias will go away."
Kulzer said he has no problems finding workers. Iraqi civilians working with the Americans in the south tend not to face the same reprisals as in Sunni areas where Iraqis seen as U.S. collaborators often are killed, even laborers who earn less than $20 a day.
The Shiite population, repressed during Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, was more welcoming of American intervention.
But even in this town in Dhi Qar province, where relations traditionally have been good, U.S. forces have seen a slight but worrying increase in violence.
So far this year, nine members of the coalition forces have been killed in the province, including four Italians, four American troops and one American civilian. No coalition forces were killed in 2004 or 2005.
The unit's commander, Col. David Elicerio, 48, of Ham Lake, Minn. said coalition forces are worried about the rising influence of Shiite militias in their territory, mainly the Mahdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"We think they're making their power play," said Elicerio. He said they also have noticed a growing influence of predominantly Shiite Iran in the region, although opinions differ as to how much Tehran calls the shots here.
According to U.S. military officials, Dhi Qar province has an unemployment rate of about 60 percent, and even those who work don't make much. The poverty is evident in towns like Abu Tubar where children run barefoot through sewage on unpaved roads.
But American officials say they have to be careful not to throw money at projects without making sure they are needed.
Iraqi officials and tribal leaders ask for more and more money unabashedly, some for much-needed projects and others of a more frivolous nature. The Americans repeatedly have denied a request from one city for an Olympic-size soccer stadium.
The Americans also say they have learned to make sure local contractors complete the work _ often by paying them in installments. And they try to under-promise and over-deliver to keep expectations in check.
Dividends from the strategy already are visible. Kulzer cited one example in which the unit hired about 20 Iraqis to clear roads of garbage and debris that can often be used to hide explosive devices. During the following weeks, he started receiving a tip every few days alerting him to caches of weapons.
The long-term strategy is to build up the Iraqi government apparatus in the region, which is heavily dominated by tribal groups.
While American military officials acknowledge that tribes will always play a role, they hope that by channeling money through the provincial and city councils, the government bodies will gain more clout.
And hopefully future priorities will be based on need rather than tribal allegiances, they say.