By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
JIFF JAFFA, Iraq -- After the feast, the tribal leaders of Jiff Jaffa laid out their problem. They had five water pumps issued by the Iraqi government, but none were working. Municipal officials either said they were afraid to visit this dangerous region or demanded that the leaders pay large sums to use certain contractors. Now, the sheiks were asking for help from the United States.
It was a familiar request for the group of U.S. soldiers and aid officials seated in a large trailer on a farm in this rural stretch of southern Iraq.
"So the real reason they are not helping you is they want a bribe?" asked Lewis Tatem, the tall, deep-voiced deputy leader of the Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in charge of this area.
"Yes, a bribe," replied Hamid Mazza al-Masodi.
The United States turned over sovereignty to an Iraqi government in June 2004 after a 14-month occupation. But for many Iraqis, the United States remains the only source of basic services, protection and infrastructure -- functions the new government was supposed to perform. The result is a dilemma for U.S. officials and particularly the reconstruction teams that are the cornerstone of the rebuilding effort. When Americans step in to provide services that the government does not, they foster dependence and undermine the institutions they want to strengthen.
"It's always a dilemma. Should we do it? Or should we let the government do it? We are the government for them," said Tatem, of Reston, Va. "But what happens after we leave? Does it all fall apart for them? And will this allow the insurgents to gain control by giving them what they need?"
Since April, scores of reconstruction teams have been dispatched across Baghdad and other volatile areas to help stabilize Iraq. Made up of aid workers, diplomats and military officers, they include experts in agriculture, economics, engineering and other fields. They help create small businesses, generate jobs, support agricultural unions and work with local and provincial governments to provide essential services in areas where the dominant power is the U.S. military.
"We can fire the police chief, we can get the mayor removed if we want. Iraq is a sovereign country, don't get me wrong, but I wonder how much they would get their act together if our presence was reduced," said Maj. Craig Whiteside of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.
"It's impossible to put the American military somewhere and not have everybody, when they have to make a decision, ask, 'Is this okay, boss?' "
In this region, where Sunnis and Shiite groups are battling for power, U.S. reconstruction efforts are largely focused on Sunni areas ignored by the Shiite-led government. U.S. officers say the Iraqi government is unwilling to spend money on Sunni areas because the United States is doing so.
On July 25, Tatem attended a meeting of senior commanders for the region. Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, was telling his superior, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. general in Baghdad's southern belt, about the disparities in the rebuilding effort.
The Shiite areas had plenty of water, but nearby Sunni areas such as Diyarah were facing immense shortages. The U.S. military had stepped into the void, assisting the area significantly.
"We have taken care of Diyarah," Garrett said. "The next push ought to be the government taking care of Diyarah."
"But it's a Shiite government and that's a Sunni community," Lynch replied.
"Yes sir, yes sir," said Garrett, acknowledging Lynch's point and shaking his head in frustration.
"It really goes back to the fish story," said Lynch. "Are we here to teach them how to fish or to give them fish?"
"Right now, we're giving them fish, sir," Garrett said.
Lynch said the United States had "to give them fish" in order "to provide time and space" for the Iraqi government to "build capacity and ideally do the right thing for the people of Iraq."
"But as long as decisions are made on sectarian reasons, we've got all sorts of problems," he said.
Two days later, Tatem was in Jiff Jaffa, contemplating the tribal leaders' request. Fixing the water pumps would have a tremendous impact in the community. But he also didn't want to increase its dependence on the United States.
"This might be fixable. Instead of throwing money at it, put pressure on the city council," Tatem advised his team.
Jiff Jaffa's irrigation systems officially came under the bailiwick of Baghdad, the sheiks told him. That complicated matters further.
So Tatem asked them if local officials had given permission to have the pumps fixed. They had, but refused to fund the repairs, the sheiks told Tatem.
Tatem agreed to pay a contractor. Then he told his team members that they needed to apply more pressure on the government.
"We want those government resources to flow down to here," Tatem said. "As far as I understand, that's still the government's pump."
He told his interpreter to convey a final message to the tribal leaders of Jiff Jaffa. "This is the last time America will do this service. It's not America's job to look after this. This is Iraqi municipal government responsibility," he said, adding that the United States would fix the pumps for humanitarian reasons.
The sheiks smiled -- and made one more request. The U.S. military, they said, had promised them storage tanks that had not yet arrived. They would get them, a soldier responded wearily, making a note to himself.