RealClearWorld presents a special series of original, exclusive blog posts by the boots on the ground in Iraq - Baghdad, Anbar Province and beyond. These bloggers include American Marines, soldiers, support personnel and government administrators. The posts also feature exclusive, on-location photographs of Iraqi lives as seen through the lenses of the bloggers.
These posts are provided exclusively to RealClearWorld by the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in these posts are the bloggers' own sentiments.
Part Three: Babil Province
SECURITY IMPROVEMENTS PALPABLE BUT FRAGILE
I arrived in Al-Hillah in the beginning of March 2008, and the changes since then have been notable. The gains in security during that time are reflected in an improved quality of life for the province's citizens. Babil -- the most populous (1.6 million) province in the south central region -- is the keystone for the south central region. The U.S. maintains a Regional Embassy Office (REO ) in Al-Hillah, one of four in Iraq (together with Basrah, Kirkuk and Erbil). Babil is largely located between the Tirgris and Euphrates and has been Iraq's breadbasket as well as an industrial center. The northern part of the province lies within the so-called "Triangle of Death," south of Baghdad. This was a Sunni area lying on the Sunni/Shia fault line and the stage in which active fighting was still taking place until early 2008. An embedded sister PRT is paired with U.S. forces in northern Babil, where the changes of the last 10 months have probably been most starkly visible. A place like Jurf as Sakr, a Sunni majority town in northern Babil, was the scene of terrible destruction one year ago. I walked down the main street early this summer and was able to visit stores and talk to shopkeepers, escorted by only two soldiers at a distance.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR ENGAGEMENT ON THE GROUND
The Al-Hillah REO supported three other PRTs, which for security reasons were not able to deploy to the provinces of Diwaniyah, Najaf and Karbala. This year all three of those PRTs are now based in their respective provincial capitals working closely with the provincial authorities to build governance capacity, pursue reconstruction and promote political reconciliation.
SOME IRAQIS RETURNING TO BABIL
Just a few weeks after my arrival in Al-Hillah, the REO compound was shelled twice. The REO compound adjoins a U.S. Army Forward Operating Base, where a battalion of the Third Infantry Division/Fourth Brigade is located. There were also several unsuccessful attempts to rocket our compound.
During the early weeks of spring, the Sadrist Militia, Jaysh Al-Mahdi (JAM), also known as Mahdi's Army, tried to destabilize the situation in southern Iraq with Iranian support and training. Militia groups attacked government and offices of the governing political parties, especially ISCI and Dawa. The Iraqi Security Forces responded forcefully and effectively, disrupting JAM's organizational structure and operational capabilities. It was at this time that Prime Minister Maliki decided to take back control of Basrah.
The fighting in Babil was not nearly as intense as in Basrah, and the ISF never lost complete control of any area of the province. Since that time, the incidence of IED and EFP attacks has dropped by several orders of magnitude. Stores remain open in the evening, and people no longer hustle home after dark. For the first time in several years, some women walk the streets of Hillah without headscarves. Numerous restaurants have opened and you now hear pop music in the streets that the Sadrist militia would prevent, preferring instead religious music. This year, 10 Iraqi expatriates returned to Hillah to take up faculty positions at Babil University, and several others have expressed an interest in doing the same. While we don't have good statistics on the rate of return, this is one indication that Iraq's intelligentsia, which had the ability and good reason to flee, are beginning to come home.
WITH IMPROVEMENT COMES NEW CHALLENGES
To be sure, there is a real revival of economic activity in the province. Construction projects are ubiquitous. Numerous housing projects have popped up this year around Al-Hillah like desert wildflowers after the late winter rains. This has been both a blessing and a curse. As the economy revives -- with no small help from increased oil prices over the last two years -- the demand for electricity has grown sharply in Babil. Although the supply of electricity has also grown consistently this last year, the rising demand has maintained the shortages that plague much of the rest of Iraq. Power was available this summer sometimes for no more than six hours a day.
The PRT has been active in helping Iraqis kickstart their economy. At the PRT's initiative, a contractor helped the Iraqi Society of Fish Producers to reenergize this key economic sector with a targeted grant. Fish farming traditionally was a big money maker in Iraq, and Babil has been at the centerpiece. As a result, over five million fingerlings found themselves distributed throughout the province and in neighboring ones too, providing gainful employment to many young males who could otherwise be tempted to work for AQI or JAM.
Caption: Iraqis harvesting carp fingerlings in May 2008 outside of Hillah, as part of a PRT-inspired fish farm project.
A SHIFT IN PRT FOCUS: IRAQI MONEY FOR IRAQI PROJECTS
Until recently, the PRT's work focused on capital projects, using U.S. funding to build schools, roads, water treatment plants. That has changed. For a variety of reasons ranging from poor governance capacity to bureaucratic inertia, the provinces have not in the past succeeded in spending all of their budgets. We have now begun to use Iraqi funds to do this, while we provide the expertise for long-term planning, and operations and training in operations and maintenance of key infrastructure. This shift has not always been easy for the Iraqis or Americans, accustomed to doing business in the past, but it reflects the new reality. Fortunately for Babil Province, it has one of the best records in executing its budget, spending nearly all the funds allocated to it.
Caption: Women with their children line up to receive medical attention at a mobile clinic organized by the PRTs Civil Affairs Unit, in collaboration with Iraqi doctors.
THE TOWER OF BABIL: WHERE IRAQ'S PAST AND FUTURE COME TOGETHER
Today, the PRT's focus is to help the provincial government succeed in providing essential services to the population. Our aim is to strengthen the provinces capacity, not to be a substitute. We have established joint working groups to do long-term planning -- from capital infrastructure projects and water and sewage master plans to investment promotion and the development of tourism. Yes, there is potential for this. It's now possible to envision that one day Americans and others will visit this province -- the site of the Babylonian ruins, of the prophet Ezekiel's grave and of Abraham's home -- as ordinary tourists. It is a land that has witnessed death and destruction for several decades now -- several thousands of Shia were killed in Babil by Saddam Hussein's forces during the 1991 Shia Uprising -- but this is also a land with an incredible history to share with the rest of the world. The Babylonian ruins are just two miles from where I sit writing now, a reminder to me of what was and what could be.
Caption: A view of some of the Babylonian Ruins, which have not been excavated, or maintained, for many years long before 2003.
Read the Entire Series at RCW's Rebuilding Iraq Blog