By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 25, 2008
NAJAF, Iraq, May 24 -- U.S. officials on Saturday launched local reconstruction teams at two sites in the southern provinces of Karbala and Najaf, saying they intend to take advantage of security gains by repairing the region's ailing infrastructure and boosting economic development.
"As security conditions stabilize, you have opportunities that weren't there before," said Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "This is an important part of the country, and there are opportunities for development here."
During a visit to the two provinces Saturday, Crocker expressed optimism about improved security in parts of the country, and he praised Iraqi military operations in recent weeks in the southern port city of Basra, the northern city of Mosul and Sadr City, a vast Shiite district of Baghdad.
"What we've seen in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul is Iraqi forces are leading the operation," Crocker said. "In the case of Sadr City, they have the whole show."
Thousands of Iraqi troops were deployed last week to Sadr City, a stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to quell clashes that began in late March. The soldiers were deployed after Sadrist leaders and Iraqi government officials reached a cease-fire agreement that included keeping U.S. forces on the sidelines of an Iraqi army incursion into the area.
In Mosul, the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a threat, Crocker said, but has "never been closer to defeat."
The State Department has 29 provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq. The program cost U.S. taxpayers about $1 billion this year. Nineteen of the teams have formed since Crocker became ambassador in March 2007. The teams in Karbala and Najaf will each have about 15 employees.
The contingent in Karbala province, about eight miles east of the city of Karbala, is surrounded by blast walls and guarded by Ugandan security contractors and a small unit of U.S. soldiers. The chief of the Karbala team, Donald J. Cooke, a Foreign Service officer, was among the American diplomats taken hostage in the Iranian capital of Tehran in 1979.
Karbala has been the scene of several large attacks since the war began.
In 2004, more than 100 people were killed and hundreds were injured in a series of bombings targeting pilgrims traveling to the province to commemorate Ashura, a Shiite Islamic period of mourning.
One of the most dramatic attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq also occurred in Karbala. On Jan. 20, 2007, men dressed as American security workers drove several GMC trucks into the province's main government building in downtown Karbala. They killed one soldier and abducted four others who were executed later that day.
In what U.S. and Iraqi officials described as a stunning turnaround, Crocker and several other diplomats visited the provincial headquarters Saturday morning to meet with Karbala's governor, Akeel al-Khazaali.
Khazaali said the government had rid its security forces of militiamen and otherwise cracked down on Shiite extremists.
"This province is now secure," he said.
The governor of Najaf, Assad Sulran Abu Gelal, said he hopes the provincial reconstruction team there is helping to expedite construction of an international airport in the city, which is visited by millions of Shiite pilgrims each spring.
Also Saturday, aides to Sadr accused Iraqi and U.S. troops of violating a cease-fire agreement by rounding up his followers in the Amil neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad. More than 400 worshipers were detained at the Amil Mosque on Friday, according to Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr's chief spokesman.
"The Sadr office in Najaf denounces this act and condemns the desecration of a sacred place," Obaidi said, "and considers it a violation of the agreement . . . and a dangerous step."
Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, said the detentions took place between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Bayaa neighborhood west of Amil after Iraqi forces discovered a weapons cache near the local Sadr office. He said 513 people "of interest" were screened by American and Iraqi troops; 128 people were detained by the Iraqi military, and 41 were detained by U.S. soldiers.
The agreement reached between the Sadrists and the main Shiite bloc in parliament was designed to allow Iraqi troops to enter Sadr City in exchange for avoiding mass detentions of Sadrists, Obaidi said. He added that it was supposed to apply to the entire country, not just Sadr City.
Crocker said Saturday that Sadr's followers, who include members of the powerful Mahdi Army militia, must decide whether "they are going to identify with a militia that is increasingly unpopular" or seek to consolidate their power by participating in provincial elections scheduled for the fall.
"They have some decisions to make, especially in light of recent events," he said, referring to the recent military operations in Basra and Sadr City.
Correspondent Amit R. Paley and special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.