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 One: Anbar Province
My name is John Matel and I am the leader of a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Anbar Province, Iraq. A lot has changed in Western Anbar since I arrived here almost a year ago and as my assignment comes to an end, I can appreciate them.
The first big difference is the physical appearance. Last year much of this province looked like what it had recently been – a war zone. Shops and homes were boarded up, in ruins or flattened. People looked shocked and sullen. Anbar is still not up to what most of us would consider acceptable standards, but improvements are phenomenal and the change palpable.
Along the whole Western Euphrates River Valley (WERV) and into the desert oasis cities of Nukhayb and Rutbah markets are open; streets are busy; the shops are full of goods; things are happening. We used to use a “banana index” where we looked at produce in the shops as a proxy for goods being available. Bananas available that were not green or brown indicated a decent distribution network. Today that index is overtaken by events, since shops are full. We now are thinking of going over to a “gold standard” since we now see gold and jewels in shop windows and assume that the owners must feel safe enough from both insurgents and ordinary crooks to be so confident.
Security is increasingly taken for granted by many people and now they are moving on to other concerns, such as economy, traffic and building their lives.
We have much more freedom of movement. I didn't do my first market walk until January of this year. Now we walk in the Iraqi markets on almost every trip, talking to people and finding out about their hopes and problems.
A year ago there were serious fuel shortages. While problems remain (many resulting from government controls on prices and supplies), the refinery at K3 in Husaybah is up and running. This seemed like an impossible dream when I first saw the place a few months ago. K3 produces naphtha, kerosene, benzene and heavy fuel oil. It is still not up to 100% production, but it is way up from ... nothing last year.
The crude oil arrives from Bayji by rail. This railroad was not working and was not secure just a few months ago. I remember flying over the rail/highway route in a Huey, with the narration being that it could work, but there were lots of challenges. Getting the rail system up and running is another great accomplishment of the past year. This will essentially clear the lines all across Anbar.
I don’t often see this progress reflected in news reports. I recently saw a CBS segment from 2007, which I suppose reflected the situation at the time. But it is amazing how much things have changed and some mention of that in the follow up segment might have been nice.
The segment shows the bad old days in Hadithah. They said that most people in Hadithah are hostile to coalition forces. Back then maybe; today things are different. I walk through Hadithah a lot. If people are hostile, they don’t show it. People smile and wave at us. I frequently stop to talk to shopkeepers and pedestrians. Not only have I encountered no hostility, but many people thank us for the security we have brought to the place. I have featured pictures of my walks through Hadithah on many occasions.
Sometimes dumpy; no longer scary.
We accomplished a lot. We have created options. At the end of 2006, it was hard to believe success in Iraq was possible. Some thought that our only option was to get out as soon as possible – to end the war by accepting defeat. I disagreed at the time because the consequences of failure in Iraq were too terrible to accept, but I admit that I did not see a clear way forward. I greeted the news of the surge with more hope than real expectation. By the time I volunteered to go to Iraq, about a year ago, I thought that things had turned around, but I expected to be thrust into the middle of a war and I was not sure we could be successful. I never expected that only a year later we would have almost annihilated Al Qaeda in Iraq, neutralized the insurgency and seen such progress and prosperity return to the towns of Anbar - back then called the most dangerous place on earth. Of course, I didn't really know the Marines so well back then and I didn't know the people of Anbar at all. THEIR achievements have been astonishing.
Read the Entire Series at RCW's Rebuilding Iraq Blog