SABA AL BOR, Iraq -- It started with a broken generator at a water pumping station. Local officials did what they usually do when an important piece of machinery needs repairs: They turned to the U.S. forces stationed in town.
But this time, the answer was "No." The time had come for officials here to rely on the central government in Baghdad for such things.
"It's a rather new concept, empowering local leaders to take charge of their leaders," said Maj. Randall Baucom of the 1st Brigade of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, as he recalled the June generator incident. "But unless these projects are vested at the national level, you can build schools, but there are no teachers. You can build clinics, but there are no nurses."
U.S. officials call the process "transitioning." Others might call it weaning. Whatever the name, it means the same thing: nudging Iraqi officials to stop turning to U.S. forces for necessities such as fuel deliveries and clinic construction, and to begin working through the relevant ministries in Baghdad.
That's a tall order. Distrust of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's central government runs deep, not only because of sectarian suspicions, but because of its slowness in passing major legislation and in providing essential services such as electricity and drinking water.
Iraq's government ministries are too slow to spend money on capital projects, according to the most recent quarterly report of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. Overall, Iraqi ministries had spent only 36 percent of their capital budgets for 2007 as of Nov. 1, said the report, which came out in December. It blamed lack of trained budget personnel, stringent anti-corruption laws and weaknesses in contracting procedures.
Some things have improved, but in the fifth year of the war, wariness remains.
"Iraqis know we don't really have a government. All we have is chess pieces," said Dr. Abbas Haider, who runs Saba al Bor's clinic.
The threadbare concrete structure remained open through more than a year of mortar and rocket bombardments that all but emptied this town. With the situation calmer now, thousands of people are pouring back into Saba al Bor, and Haider is under pressure to keep his clinic open around the clock.
That means persuading the relevant ministries in Baghdad to provide doctors, nurses, equipment, medicines and security to protect the building.
Haider said that two years ago, U.S. troops routinely provided diesel, gasoline and batteries to his clinic and fixed ambulances. "But they've been withdrawing," he said, adding that he understood the need to use his own government for help but did not relish the idea. "I expected 100 percent," he said of the Americans.
Those are the sorts of expectations U.S. officials need to reverse. With pressure in Washington to draw down U.S. troops and reduce spending on the war, they say change is inevitable. Among other things, money used for U.S.-led projects won't last forever. A special fund of nearly $20 billion for major reconstruction and relief projects, approved by Congress in 2003, is nearly depleted and won't be replenished.
U.S. troops have at their disposal funds from the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which gives field commanders cash to cover smaller-scale projects such as road repairs, fuel purchases or school rehabilitations. But the program was never intended to be permanent, and the $770 million budgeted for Iraq for fiscal year 2008 is 20 percent less than the amount approved in 2007, said Maj. Joseph Price, the program coordinator for Iraq.
The situation has thrust U.S. officials to become matchmakers to accelerate the process of Iraqis taking charge. They orchestrate meetings between local and national leaders, urge them to talk, share a meal and trade phone numbers. The hope is that long-term relationships will develop.
Nationwide, however, the needs are immense, and U.S. officials acknowledge that things move slowly when the central government is involved.
Baucom traces Saba al Bor's transition back to the broken generator, which he says was repaired with the national government's help. It took about three weeks to get the necessary parts, longer than if U.S. forces had stepped in to do the job.
"We could have fixed it immediately. We stifled ourselves to get the local government to get the job done," he said. "But government takes time, and new government takes a lot of time."
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.