Iraqi Forces' Conduct on Humanitarian Mission Raises Questions About Future

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 10, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Under the glare of a Humvee's headlights, Brad Blauser broke a sweat assembling a pediatric wheelchair as a small group of Iraqi soldiers observed quietly.

The idea was to train the Iraqis so that when the time came to distribute the wheelchairs, Blauser and the 20 or so U.S. soldiers who coordinated the giveaway could fade into the background as Iraqi troops presented 32 fully assembled wheelchairs to disabled children.

"We're trying to build rapport," said Staff Sgt. Craig Jackson, 34, of Pennsylvania, one of the squad leaders working with Blauser. "Show them that their government is trying to help its people."

But the mission in Fadhil, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, showed quite the opposite. It raised questions that haunt U.S. troops as they prepare to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30: When the Americans leave, how will the Iraqi forces behave? Will the billions of dollars and thousands of lives spent propping up and legitimizing the Iraqi government prove to have been a poor investment?

Thirty minutes into the assembly tutorial, the crowd of Iraqi soldiers thinned as curiosity gave way to boredom. Soon, Blauser, 43, found himself surrounded mainly by U.S. troops.

"What happened to all the people who were supposed to be helping put these together?" demanded Jackson, visibly irked. "We're not doing it."

But there was no time to prod the Iraqis into action; it was getting late. So after the first wheelchair was assembled, Blauser and the American soldiers unpacked the remaining 31 and put them together with little assistance from the Iraqis.

The story of how the boxed wheelchair parts arrived at that dark, dusty Iraqi army station parking lot begins in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Blauser lost his corporate job. After spending three years oscillating between unemployment and underemployment, he jumped at the chance to become a warehouse hand at a U.S. military base in northern Iraq.

"It was either come here or fall apart," Blauser said.

When he arrived in Mosul in November 2004, one of thousands of contractors hired to support the United States' burgeoning war enterprise in Iraq, Blauser had never been overseas and knew nothing about the nonprofit world.

But one night in August 2005, a battalion surgeon at the base told Blauser about the scores of disabled children he was meeting during aid missions.

"The military couldn't offer long-term care," Blauser said. What if, he thought, "we could at least give them a wheelchair."

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