Powering Reconstruction

A generator repair instructor in Jamiyah speaks with Sergeant First Class Fred Welch. (photo by John Goodman)

Within Iraq's borders lie the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia, where the fabled Garden of Eden is said to have been. Modern day Baghdad bears little resemblance to such a place if it ever existed, in particular because the infrastructure that flourished under Saddam Hussein's brutal, yet effective regime has been crumbling away for nearly 20 years. Discarded refuse is prolific and ever-present, and stagnant, trash-filled water stands in little ponds throughout many neighborhoods. Electricity is brought to homes via small, low amperage wires. One wire bears a 10 amp load, or about enough to power a light and an appliance, and each home's collection of lights and appliances contributes to the snaggle of wires hanging from poles above the streets. Often a mass wires attached covered with dust and warped in the sunlight takes on the appearance of vines as it hangs forlornly from a dilapidated power pole. It is only when I realize where I am that the impossibility of this becomes apparent.

Iraq's decaying infrastructure is the byproduct of its similarly shaky economy, much to the chagrin of so many of the families living here. Political and religious allegiances aside, everyone here (or anywhere, for that matter) has a strong desire to eat, be clothed, have a place to live, and receive decent services. Whichever group can provide the most immediate relief from economic duress gets peoples' attention. For instance, insurgents often pay regular, run-of-the-mill people to work for them, enabling more attacks against Coalition units, other religious groups, and political enemies. The Sons of Iraq used to be Sunni insurgents until they were hired away by the Coalition Forces as a security force. Now, they are paid by the Iraqi government, but as Iraqi money dries up, Coalition money is again being kicked in to pay for job training programs to give these men job skills aimed at helping them stay employed in economy-building industry rather than the insurgency, which is sure to quickly rend the delicate balance of factions vying for power in this country.

Soldiers from Alpha Company, 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion -- operating under the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion's command umbrella -- have been going out into certain Baghdad neighborhoods on a regular basis to promote and monitor one such training program -- a hands-on class where students refurbish old diesel generators bought with Coalition money. The idea is to provide usable job skills while at the same time adding more badly-needed electric generators to small residential areas in Baghdad. The generators -- A/403 is managing 11 in Ghazalia and Jamiyah -- cost from $10,000 to $15,000, and are given either to neighborhood co-ops or installed at municipal government buildings where the public will have access to them through some organized local power structure.

Heightened security has accompanied these frequent forays outside the wire, as the number of attacks was up earlier in the week. An MRAP was damaged and at least one of its passengers sustained injury when a US Army convoy was hit by an RKG-3 anti-tank grenade the other day. This news heightened my alertness during missions. Looking out the windows of an MRAP, I found myself thinking, "What's that guy doing with his hands in his pockets?" and "Why is he looking at us with that expression?" We traveled through areas of town that were strictly residential, without bustle of commerce, and the lack of activity became eerie, as if it were the calm preceding a storm. At a mission briefing, soldiers were told to watch for guys with cameras, as attacks are always filmed so that the perpetrators can post the video on YouTube to claim credit for the strike.

On major thoroughfares, MRAPs move quickly and without incident, but on some of the smaller streets that must be negotiated to reach training sites, going is slow. MRAPs are very tall, and have a number of antennae protruding from the roof that can catch on low hanging wires, which as I mentioned before, are everywhere. This problem has been partially remedied by placing long runners of PVC pipe above the turret and communications equipment, and attaching them to the front bumper to form a big bow. The wires still snag, however, and are occasionally ripped down. More often than not, a gate or two will pop open as residents emerge to watch with concerned or annoyed expressions while appliance wires come down. It's not uncommon to see the wires fixed in a jiffy by someone who lives in the neighborhood, but this can't be doing much to improve American-Iraqi relations on the ground level. For US troops though, MRAPs are good -- they have prevented many deaths from occurring during IED and grenade attacks. BAE systems -- the European defense contractor that makes the biggest MRAPs -- can't complain either, as they recently reported a 94 percent profit surge from products they've sold for use in the the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

One particular day, the mission took us to a training site in one of the nicer Baghdad suburbs. There was nothing green to break the tan monotony that pervades much of the city, but the houses were in a decent state of repair, and there wasn't a lot of trash on the street. Most of the men enrolled in the program there were recent detainees from Buca Prison, near Basra. They had probably been held on suspicion of terrorist or insurgent activities, said one American army sergeant, although another opined that they were most likely reported by a neighbor and weren't the ones planting the bombs. Dressed in bright blue coveralls, the students weren't the kind of guys you would think of as being the terrorist type, if there ever was one. Most had weathered complexions, with eyes that spoke of years of hardship. They didn't appear to be doing much of anything when the Army convoy arrived, but as soon as the MRAPs rumbled up and soldiers began to dismount, a number of students appeared outside an began polishing a couple of old diesel generators with greasy rags. The "Quick, look busy!" scene has been commonplace at most training sites I have been to.

It has been difficult to understand the work ethic I've encountered so often in Baghdad, but then, it must be difficult to motivate oneself to engage in anything constructive if all you have known is decay for so many years. It's a feeling I hope never to have, but then, I've always had a reasonable assurance of finding employment somewhere. The men who complete this class have no guarantee that they will be able to find work once it is finished, but the hope is that their new skills as diesel generator mechanics will come in handy at some point, especially as more small generators come online in Baghdad's crowded neighborhoods. Nobody really knows what the future will bring, and the US Army can't make guarantees. The message they're giving to Iraqi contractors running classes, municipal government officials, and the students themselves has been, "We've given you the tools, now go do something with it." As US troops prepare to leave, the Iraqi government, ready or not, will have to be the go-to when its people have problems.

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