Hard-Won Progress In Baghdad

By Anthony J. Diaz
Saturday, March 15, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Since I arrived here last August, I have been struck by four things: the financial commitment we have made to reconstruction; the precipitous decline in violence; the inklings of representative government; and the small yet significant progress in communal relations between the mostly Shiite Iraqi army and the predominantly Sunni residents of this area. One often reads of the chaos plaguing Iraq. Yet the media accounts only infrequently seem to grasp the successes being achieved.

My combat outpost sits along the Tigris River in a section of Baghdad known as Adhamiyah. It is enclosed by a wall that separates it from the predominantly Shiite eastern section of the city, similar to the wall that separates Catholics and Protestants in Belfast. Though a few Shiites remain within the enclosure, most have moved out, leaving a Sunni enclave surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods.

American taxpayers well know that millions of dollars were squandered on poorly scrutinized projects. Our government dumped money into quick fixes with, for too long, little regard for the culture of dependency it was breeding. But much of this has changed. Yes, sustainable job creation was not initially a priority, and working-age residents of Adhamiyah remain dangerously underemployed. But in this area we have begun to create more permanent jobs.

The efforts being carried out by Iraqis, the coalition and nongovernmental organizations focus on essential services, economic development and reconciliation. Restoring services such as electricity, a dependable sewage system, trash collection, and access to fuels and potable water are at the top of the agenda. Initiatives to bring all of these services to a satisfactory level have met with some success. The local economy has benefited from the lull in violence. Market areas that were once desolate are teeming with life, consumers are out and shops are open. Coalition initiatives to develop local market councils and provide micro-grants and micro-loans to small-business owners are providing a much-needed economic spark to Baghdad's neighborhoods.

The troop surge has contributed more soldiers to this small but critical area of Baghdad. But the building of the Adhamiyah wall, coupled with the sea change in the population's attitude toward the coalition, also contributed greatly to the decline in violence. And our squadron's ability to capitalize on these changes has been equally powerful. Building a local security force has been a slow, painful process. The people's change in attitude toward the coalition has led to more citizens providing soldiers with information on crime suspects and potential locations of roadside explosives and weapons caches. All these things have shaped the successes we are seeing daily.

Late last year, I witnessed something inspirational in a rather unlikely setting: an ordinary neighborhood advisory council meeting. Attendance was the highest I had yet seen, with about 40 prominent locals present. The coalition was represented by our squadron commander, a few colonels from the embedded provincial reconstruction team and a political officer from the U.S. Embassy. Discussions ranged from the persistent lack of electricity to sewage problems to economic development. What struck me were the comments of some Sunni workers from the district's power station, who came to complain that the (mostly Shiite) Iraqi army had mistreated them and accused them of distorting the distribution of electric power, something over which these workers have little control. The men said they would strike until they received better treatment and pleaded with the council chairman, a Sunni, for help. That was an unlikely outcome, given the entrenched animosity between Shiites and Sunnis and the lack of substantive political reconciliation even at the highest levels of government here. But these men did something many Americans would take for granted: They voiced grievances and sought assistance. These are the seeds of representative government, citizens coming forth and demanding change from their representatives. Much work remains to be done, but we have clearly made a start.

Even the Iraqi army has taken a turn for the better here. Not long ago its troops were seen as an obstacle to reconciliation and were accused of arresting locals without evidence, only to request ransoms for their release. There are still occasional incidents of graft and abuse, but now Iraqi troops provide security and make efforts to build rapport with the populace.

Through continuous prodding, our squadron has influenced the local army contingent's understanding of the values of civil affairs. One particularly adept Iraqi captain has coordinated numerous efforts to hand out humanitarian assistance, organized medical and dental missions in local schools, provided security for deliveries of much-needed fuel, and even delivered wheelchairs himself.

There is still much left to be accomplished in Iraq. But the successes of the men and women serving in this once explosive area of Baghdad cannot be overstated. Sitting here in Adhamiyah, one thing is certain: The surge has worked.

The writer, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, recently received a master's degree in strategic studies and international economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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