In Ramadi, a Counterinsurgency in Cash
Program Fed $87 Million To Violence-Plagued City

By Dana Hedgpeth and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 11, 2008

One example widely cited as an effective use of the Commander's Emergency Response Program is Ramadi, the capital of the western Anbar province and a corner of the Sunni Triangle.

The city's long-running violence began to calm by late spring 2007. Local sheiks had agreed to side with Iraqi and U.S. forces and encouraged young men to join the police and military as insurgent attacks were waning. A new counterinsurgency handbook had institutionalized CERP's role, and military leaders told commanders to treat the money as ammunition.

"You had to win their trust," said Army Col. John Charlton, who oversaw U.S. forces in Ramadi at that time. "They see you catching the bad guys, putting them away, and they feel more comfortable that the terrorists aren't going to come back, that you're going to be there to protect them. It isolates the terrorists." By spending CERP money, plus securing areas and patrolling with Iraqi forces, he said, his units got tips on where weapons were hidden. Residents alerted them to plans of suicide attacks or roadside bombs.

In all, Charlton said, CERP spent $87 million in Ramadi during his 15 months there. "We did more to win the counterinsurgency with our CERP dollars than we did with our weapons," he said.

An industrial complex that had once been a major employer in Ramadi had been shuttered because of violence and local instability. Two factories in the complex had employed more than 1,500 workers, and some of the glass and ceramics they made went to supply Saddam Hussein's palaces.

The United States spent more than $500,000 of CERP funds in 11 contracts in 2005 to revive the glass factory. It never opened. The abandoned factory was instead being used as a police recruiting station when it was attacked by a suicide bomber on Jan. 5, 2006, killing at least 70 and contributing to a year of fighting that earned Ramadi a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

In May 2007, though, troops assessed that the situation had improved enough to try to reopen the ceramics factory.

CERP money would allow the factory to reopen and employ hundreds of Iraqis.

"It was an iconic symbol to try to reopen the ceramics plant," said Marine Col. John A. Koenig, who helped manage big-dollar projects in Anbar. "It meant a return of normalcy. It was a psychological impact."

Earlier attempts to reopen the ceramics factory had failed for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest challenges was the lack of reliable electricity in Ramadi to run the plant, according to Bill Marks, a chief engineer for the Air Force who helped oversee the reopening of the factory under Charlton. Plus, there was difficulty getting Iraq's central government in Baghdad to pony up some money to help, military leaders said.

But Charlton and his troops had access to CERP money. It took him two weeks to get the approval he needed to spend roughly $2 million on new generators and other parts and materials. Another Pentagon program to revive state-owned entities in Iraq chipped in about $900,000 to send a handful of Iraqi workers to Italy for training on the kilns and other equipment. Iraqi authorities put in $6 million. By the winter, the government-owned plant reopened.

Charlton left in April. Since then, the plant's Iraqi managers have been struggling.

Electricity is still spotty from the national grid, and getting precious fuel to run the generators can be tough.

Local managers have dispatched privately owned tankers to truck fuel from a refinery in Baiji, about 100 miles north -- a route that has been plagued by insurgent attacks and workers skimming fuel. The trucks have brought back enough fuel to run the plant for a few weeks, but the Iraqi Ministry of Oil has put in place quotas on how much to distribute throughout the country.

Of the three production lines in the plant, only the one building toilets is operating, sometimes only four hours a day before the electricity goes off, said Iraqi workers there. The factory employs one-tenth of the hoped-for 1,500 workers. Some days only 100 men are working, said Iraqis at the plant. "They just don't show up," said Turki al-Mohammad, who works at the plant. "But they come at the end of the month to receive their salaries." In the past few weeks, however, Iraqi officials have started to require electronic fingerprinting to make sure employees show up every day, or they don't get paid.

Workers have produced 300 toilets, but managers haven't sold as many as they'd like, even though Charlton's unit paid to put up ads in a newly built business center that offered residents and business owners a subsidy if they bought the plant's products.

After months of slow sales, the local government stepped in: It now requires contractors reconstructing Iraqi government buildings to buy supplies from the plant and pays the wages separately so the factory can sell at cost.

Fuad Hammad Anazy, one of the plant's top managers, said there are almost no sales because "the demands are often less than the level of output." The plant hasn't yet made a profit on any of its toilets because they are sold at cost.

For Musleh al Meshaal, one of the chief engineers and managers, the reopening of the plant was bittersweet. After being shot four times in the head and body in January 2005, he said, he shut the factory down out of concern for everyone's safety. In a recent telephone interview from Ramadi, he said he was grateful his plant was working again.

"With the help of the American army, we're open," he said. But he's now worried what will happen once the military leaves, saying the Iraqi government has problems of corruption and that officials in Baghdad don't spend the country's oil revenue on the local provinces.

"I suppose that I must get the fuel and raw materials on my own," he said. "We will need it. We will need more money to continue the factory.

"I'm worried, very worried, that when the American army goes, what will happen to our factory?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company