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Iraqi fears, U.S. ways trap village

SALMAN PAK, Iraq - The new village council was about to meet, as it does now every Friday since elections were held last month under the watchful eyes and gentle prodding of the Americans, but the chairman's call for order brought no such thing.

First came a loud argument over whether gasoline should be rationed, which became so heated that one council member got up from one of the chairs that ring the room, bolted outside and slammed the door behind him.

Next, a disagreement over whether to return land confiscated by Saddam Hussein's regime ended only when two of the 21 council members vowed at the top of their lungs never to speak to each other again.

And when those disputes calmed, a heavyset council member, red-faced with anger, shot to his feet and yelled so much about the uselessness of his colleagues that he may have raised the temperature in the room by several degrees.

When he lunged at his nemesis on the council, a full-fledged brawl was avoided only because other members jumped from their white plastic chairs and separated the two.

"We have to get to work," said the council chairman, Basil Abbas, a schoolteacher, restoring order briefly by slamming the palm of his hand onto the desk in front of him. "We have to work together to get things done. We have a lot of problems to solve, and we're just getting started."

Virtually all the village's 7,000 households know the problems. The high school has gained windows to replace those shattered in the war, but the bombed roof still needs repair. Curbs are freshly painted, but the roads they border still are pocked from bombs. Farmers whose land was confiscated and rented out by the old government want it back, but others long ago claimed it as their own.

The hospital has no incubators for newborns. Village bureaucrats are at a loss about whether to collect taxes - and how. The tribal elders, the men who seem to know everyone in town and have long settled disputes among its residents, are irked that American officials haven't consulted them about reconstruction plans, and the Americans seem oblivious to the elders' status. And Ibrahim Daly, the heavyset man on the council, has had enough of it all and is threatening to resign.

While the world's powers debate the future of Iraq - about the writing of its constitution, about turning over power to Iraqis, about how much money will be needed and who will foot the bill - villages such as Salman Pak have begun to rebuild, and the future is looking complicated.

In theory, this council will figure things out, set priorities, list what to fix first and how to go about it; but in fact, it can do almost nothing without the approval of the Americans.

Agreement on almost anything is hard to come by in a country used to an iron hand from Baghdad, but there is consensus here on one point: Rebuilding this shattered place will be a dauntingly complicated undertaking even if the tens of billions of dollars needed for a new infrastructure becomes available.

And rebuilding Iraq will not be one huge job; it will be a billion smaller tasks, each wrapped in its own complexities.

Village council's role

This village, in many ways, is better off than it was a few months ago. More people have electricity than in May, but fewer than in March, before the war. Schools have reopened, but many remain damaged from the fighting and the looting that followed. Food is being distributed, but there are shortages of kerosene, used for cooking. The streets are not safe for anybody.

The limited progress is not from a lack of effort by the United States, though the lack of planning seems obvious. U.S. soldiers, members of the 4th Infantry Division, mostly men in their 20s, are working to set things right. Most residents see them only once or twice a day, patrolling their streets, guns pointed in every direction.

The soldiers' duties mostly involve helping to rebuild Salman Pak. Among their assignments: Repair the schools, restore electricity, get the telephones working, equip the hospital, import gasoline and kerosene, house the homeless, feed the poor, repair the bombed roads, find people jobs, coordinate elections, review contracts, form a police force and provide security in the interim even as they are being attacked with bullets and roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

That their responsibilities include all of these would be difficult enough. But they are to fix Salman Pak using the village council, most of whose 21 members are unknown to many residents because during the decades under Hussein, there were no real politicians in town. And the soldiers have arrived with no knowledge of the tribal elders who hold sway in this village, no training in working with aid agencies and only vague information, at best, to identify who intends to help them and who wants to thwart their every move. The soldiers do not know the language of the people they are directing.

The job they trained for, as a reconnaissance unit, was to locate Iraqi soldiers so American tank crews could kill them.

"When I visualized my war, this isn't what I saw," said Capt. Charles Thrash, who at 29 and with a background in political science is shepherding the rebuilding of Salman Pak and the other villages of the al-Madain District, an area of about 210,000 residents. About 44,000 people are thought to live in the village, but nobody really knows, including Thrash, a long way from his home in Beaumont, Texas, but responsible for deciding what is needed and finding ways to get it here.

Far from complaining about the task at hand, Thrash has attacked it with energy and is committed to success. "It's not as sexy as planes flying overhead and dropping bombs, but it's important stuff," he said. "I'm kind of learning as I go along, but I'm getting the hang of it."

He and his soldiers, from the division's 2nd Brigade, can claim small victories. The Americans managed to get repairs for two vehicles for the main hospital in the village. A volunteer security force is helping to guard buildings while a paid force is being trained. Village bureaucrats are unable to do much, but they are reporting for work.

And most of the council members, even two who admit to nothing but disdain for the Americans, seem to be trying.

After Daly, the heavyset man at the council meeting, offered his resignation, he slumped back into his chair and regained a bit of composure. His biggest gripe, he said, was not that the council was slow to act - although he stressed that was certainly true - but that he was not being given his due respect by the others.

Abbas, the chairman, got up from his seat, walked to the man, bent and gave him a loud kiss on the cheek. And with that, each of the members, dressed in white robes and headpieces, rose, rushed to the man, surrounded him, leaned down and kissed him repeatedly as he laughed and threw his hands in the air.

"We are better now," said Abbas, who before the war was teaching English at the main high school, though he speaks little English. "Forgive us, but we are just a new government."

Past's secrecy and fear

Salman Pak is an agricultural area, its center about 30 miles southeast of Baghdad. Sunni Muslims make up about 75 percent of the population, Shiites the remainder. In the late 1980s and early '90s, its name was synonymous with the production of Hussein's chemical weapons; and on the outskirts of town, separated from the paved road leading into it, is an 8-foot-high dirt wall built for secrecy.

"Of course we knew something was going on inside, and we knew it was secret, but who dared to ask questions?" said Abbas. "Even people who worked there, they knew better than to talk about it."

Much of the village consists of expansive farms where oranges, tomatoes and onions are grown, but its heart beats in the downtown, a half-mile strip of shacks where fruits and vegetables are sold along with tools, light fixtures, chicken and lamb, plastic buckets, tires, cigarettes - goods to meet almost every simple need.

Some people live in cramped two-room houses that are crumbling and have no plumbing, but they may own a donkey. Most of the farm owners live in houses with flush toilets and cars parked out front.

Rich or poor, the biggest concern of residents here, aside from security, are the pools of sewage and mountains of garbage piled along the streets, the odor so foul it threatens to choke the town.

Most of the villagers are unemployed, willing to work for nickels an hour, so offering them the task of trash pickup would seem a good idea, certainly not as complicated as getting the electricity working or fixing the phones or increasing fuel production.

"Lack of funds has left Salman Pak without trash or sewage removal for five months, creating a major health hazard," Thrash wrote in a memo to the village council to pass on to the country's Ministry of Public Works in mid-September. He recommended the council use part of the village's funds - about $12,000 left from the days of the previous government - to clean up the mess.

Two weeks later, Thrash arrived for a regular meeting with all the members. Outside, the sewage was deeper, the mountains of garbage higher.

Emael Abid-Gabar, the village director of public works, said his hands were tied. He had contacted his bosses at the ministry in Baghdad, who told him he could not use the village money because it was ordered frozen in a bank by the U.S. government. The decision blocking the use of the money was made by an American advising the central government.

Thrash sat in front of the council dressed in his uniform, wearing full body armor. Eight of the 75 or so soldiers he commands stood guard outside with their rifles and a couple of Humvees. Patiently but firmly, he said in his Texas accent that his superiors had granted permission to use the money. But word had not reached the ministry.

"Just get me a cost, in writing, for cleaning up. I'll sign it, and you take it to the bank," Thrash told the director.

"But I have no authority from Baghdad," the director replied.

"You have my authority," the captain told him.

"But I need it from Baghdad," came the answer. "I will be fired."

The concept of decentralization, of a village council determining its needs and then doing something about them, would not sink in. The idea that coalition forces were calling the shots seemed to escape the director too.

Exasperated, Thrash told the director: "I'll reconfirm with my superiors, but no more waiting, just get it done. If you don't, we'll replace you with someone who will." The captain's translator, an Iraqi paid $5 a day, garbled the message.

"Wait until I reconfirm," the translator told the director on behalf of Thrash, who had no idea his words were being translated exactly wrong. The translator left unsaid the warning about the director's job security.

Another council member, relying on the same faulty translation, told Thrash in broken English there was no reason to wait.

"That's what I'm saying," Thrash replied, and now everybody seemed confused.

The council member, 47-year-old retired navy officer Saad Ramil Hashim, offered to get the money out of the bank himself if the director of public works feared the ministry in Baghdad, and the director scribbled a request on a paper because he has no computer.

The request: 40 employees at $1 a day for 15 days, or $600. A rented tractor for five days, $190 total. And the garbage trucks would have to be repaired at a cost of $200, for a total bill of $990.

So the question of sewage and garbage removal seemed solved, for less than $1,000, nearly six months after the previous regime fell. But Abid-Gabar, the reluctant public works director, was still not sure he would follow through.

"I cannot bring my men back to work no matter what he says," he confided after the meeting, nodding toward Thrash. "I do not want to get fired from Baghdad."

Awaiting repair money

President Bush has asked Congress for $87 billion, $20.3 billion of which would go for the reconstruction of Iraq and would be spent over the next 12 to 15 months. Estimates on the total reconstruction cost have varied wildly, but the most recent figures from the White House are from $50 billion to $75 billion through 2007, and outside analysts have put the price higher.

The immediate needs of Iraq, the smaller projects that could improve the daily lives of people, are largely being handled by people such as Thrash and the council he oversees. He is permitted to approve projects that cost less than $50,000. There is no limit on the number of projects he can approve, but civil engineers then review them and decide the priorities.

Thrash's soldiers, such as 1st Lt. Minnie Dougherty, pick through the village, trying to determine its needs. They write proposals for equipment, try to find Iraqi contractors who can complete the work, get cost estimates, then submit the whole package to their superiors at brigade level. Then they wait.

Dougherty, a 42-year-old physician's assistant from Harrisburg, Mo., has been trying to get an incubator for al-Madain Hospital for more than two months. She has been unsuccessful, possibly because the budget allocated to her division, $14 million, is gone.

"The vehicles I got fixed I got approval for, and all the work was done; but I haven't gotten any money to pay the mechanics," she said. "I gave them $100 of my own money to calm them down a little bit."

Major repairs stalled

There has been no comprehensive survey of the village's needs, no overall cost estimates for fixing this place, which accounts, at least in part, for the range of estimates to reconstruct the country.

"We'll see something - for example, the windows of a school have been blown out - and we can get that fixed fairly quickly, sometimes in as little as a week or two," Thrash said. "Then you have bigger expenditures, and those tend to be the things you wait for."

So the two-story brick Saad High School reopened with most of its windows missing - not a huge problem until winter sets in. The bigger concern is the roof, where gaping holes exist while approval of repairs is awaited. The Republican Guard had taken over the school during the war, neighbors said, and it was heavily bombed by air, riddled by bullets and shells from the ground.

Beyond bricks and mortar, more systematic improvements, such as the hiring of a security force, are weeks and perhaps months away for Salman Pak; homelessness is a problem; and even students who graduate from high school look forward mostly to jobs working the farms.

Thrash said about 40 Iraqis would be stationed here for security, but the training has been slow, and they are not yet available. In the meantime, volunteers have been guarding the government buildings. One volunteer was recently arrested on suspicion of taking part in attacks against American troops.

"I think that's the biggest problem we're having - figuring out who's with us and who's against us, and all the cultural stuff," Thrash said. "You can be talking to someone and they can be looking you in the eye and saying, 'Yes, Americans, we love you and support you,' but you don't know when you turn around what they might do."

Few people here readily admit to having been members of Hussein's Baath Party, though many people were. Some teachers and military officers were Baath members simply to acquire and keep their jobs. Others, though, took their membership more seriously and are among those thought to be causing unrest.

Gafer Jouda, assistant chairman of the council, said he belonged to the Baath Party to avoid trouble, but that it helped him as an electrical engineer get work with the government. The Americans allowed him to run for office, and he sits in on every meeting with Thrash and mostly remains quiet. In an interview, though, he said he wants the Americans out of his village immediately and that while he does not support attacks on the troops, he hopes if enough of them are hurt they will go away.

"When we need something done here, we go around to the houses and collect money," he said. "People give us their trust. I have no budget from the Americans, and I can't get anything done. We don't need them, don't want them, and they should leave the rebuilding to us."

America's council

The old man with one eye and legs that barely work anymore and fingers permanently curled was, in some way, the village's old government, and he would like to help with the rebuilding. Eight of his grandsons were chattering and laughing as the man sat on a couch in his home, but when he raised his hands like a choir conductor, suddenly there was silence. It was the signal he had something important to say.

"I have made an important decision," said the man, Ahmed Thedan Shebib, who is 93. His sons stood gazing down at him, his grandsons, on the floor, looked up.

Anticipation seemed to still the dust in the air as he paused for effect. Then he said: "We need more boys so they can support the Americans. So I have decided to take another wife. I will do it for Iraq."

His sons and grandsons did not laugh hard enough to cry, but they came close. And the old man offered a grin too. He was kidding, of course, but he had made his point: The U.S. troops here need the support of Iraqis - and Iraqis need the U.S. troops - and he is ready to help any way he can. And any way he can dream of.

The problem Shebib has is that no U.S. soldiers and no members of the newly elected village council have asked for his help, and he has a lot to offer. He is the chairman and patriarch of the Shebib clan of the Deluien tribe in this village, and he knows who the bad guys are, he said, and he knows the good guys.

"For years, people came to this house to kiss my father's hand because he would solve their problems," said Shebib's eldest son, Mekebar, who is 47 and will take charge of the clan when his father dies.

"He knows everybody. What I'm seeing is, Saddam Hussein rewarded a small number of people so he could stay in power. Now, the Americans are doing the same thing. That council is not representative of this village."

Fifteen people were elected to the village council Aug. 31 - from a ballot crowded with 52 people - but there were questions about the voting. Thrash's mantra - flexibility and adaptability, which has served him well - led him to appoint six more members to calm people. The council includes farmers, electricians, a retired police officer, the retired Iraqi navy officer, a car dealer, an engineer, a grocery store owner, two teachers, a former principal, a landlord and a man who sells women's cosmetics. All of the council members are men.

Only about 5,000 people cast ballots in the election, which has hurt the council's credibility. Talk to the business owners on the main street and few people know anybody serving. Only seven businessmen of 25 asked could name a member. Two could name a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S.-appointed national government seated in Baghdad.

"It's the coalition's council, not our council," said Mohamed Muhmood, 26, as he sold tomatoes, potatoes and bananas 100 yards from where the members were arguing. "They told us who we could vote for so the vote does not count."

'It will get better'

At the council offices, though, the 21 members were dutifully carrying on, or trying to. They could not have been blamed if they were exhausted after their raucous meeting, but they were not. Abbas, the chairman, sat behind his desk while members wandered in and out of his office. He sat, listening, like the Godfather trying to resolve disputes, offer advice, provide encouraging words.

People from the village also came in with their problems: They complained about the sewage and trash, about the phones and electricity, and mostly about security.

"It will get better," he told a man who complained about waiting six hours in line for kerosene. "We have to have faith in Captain Thrash. He knows what he is doing."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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