Rebuilding Kirkuk takes some different tactics

The Idaho StatesmanMarch 1, 2006 

— KIRKUK, Iraq — Do you build a landfill even if you don't have enough trucks to haul trash? Or, if you're cleaning up Kirkuk, do you buy trucks if there's no place to dump the trash?

How about sewage running down streets in open ditches? Do you lay pipelines to get the sewage out of neighborhoods? Even if there's no place to treat the sewage?

These are the chicken-or-egg dilemmas soldiers in the Idaho Army National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team face as they rebuild Kirkuk. Defeating insurgents in and around Kirkuk is the 116th's primary duty in its yearlong mission here. But reconstructing a long-neglected city is an important part of the strategy.

"The Army has a lot of books on how to do things, but they forgot to write this one," said Lt. Col. Steve Knutzen, who heads reconstruction and economic development efforts for the 116th.

Rebuilding poses danger for troops, Iraqis alike

By helping rebuild the city, soldiers want to show Iraqis the benefits of siding with coalition forces rather than insurgents.

"Our job is to make good relations between the coalition forces and the people here," said Maj. David Jenkins of Boise, the 2-116th executive officer.

Soldiers from the 116th have completed, or have in the works, about $10.8 million worth of public works projects in Kirkuk, but it's not nearly enough to do all that's needed. The money comes from a pot of U.S. reconstruction funds that 116th soldiers can try to tap for civil reconstruction projects.

The challenges are many. To begin with, it's dangerous to be seen cooperating with Americans —even in relatively stable Kirkuk.

"If you're known to work with coalition forces, you're a target," Knutzen said.

And the Iraqi work ethic can confound the U.S. soldiers.

"In shah Allah" means "God willing," but it's used as a kind of all-occasions catch-all phrase: If God wants it to happen, it will happen.

"It's almost cliche, but that's how they think around here," said 1st Lt. Jim Philpott of Boise, who works on civil affairs projects for the 116th. "It almost makes your brain bleed."

Dividing a skinny pie

There's no shortage of want.

Deciding what gets done in Kirkuk often starts at the ground level. The soldiers who walk the streets and patrol the neighborhoods meet with community leaders and discuss projects. Proposals go up the chain of command, where top officers in the 116th decide which have the highest priority and how to coordinate different projects.

"The intent is not to just put stuff out there, it's to build a system," said Knutzen, of Clarkston, Wash.

The intent is also to get Iraqis involved. Kirkuk's unemployment hovers above 60 percent and is as high as 90 percent in some parts of town, Knutzen said.

One other U.S. goal: Help Iraqis solve their own problems. "If we build 100 projects and leave here and they don't do any after we leave," Knutzen said, "that's not a success."

But Iraq's government is just getting started. The country has few banks to provide capital because charging or paying interest is forbidden under Islamic law. People are used to an economic system that is a hybrid between socialism and favoritism. The government gives money to the companies it favors.

One sheik who helps decide what projects should get done has a contractor who bids on projects — and then gives the sheik a cut. "It's the way they do business over here," Knutzen said.

Although Iraq has contractors, engineers and surveyors, the concept of competitive bidding for a public works job is literally and figuratively foreign to them.

Bridging the cultural gap

According author Charles Tripp's "History of Iraq," Iraqi rulers since the early 1900s have remained in power by granting favors to one group at the expense of others — keeping various ethnic groups, sects and tribes divided and easier to control.

"Given the origins of the Iraqi state, as well as the processes associated with its formation, certain social groupings have always been favored over others. They have used the power acquired to protect privilege and give it dimensions of property, status and position," Tripp wrote.

Saddam Hussein used that system to his advantage by rewarding tribes and ethnic groups loyal to him and punishing those that weren't. That created social rifts.

"The challenge is getting them to believe in their government," Philpott said.

Iraqi spheres of loyalty and the view of their government are different than those of their American helpers. As a general rule, Iraqis' first priority is to family, followed by extended family, tribe, ethnic group or religious sect. Community and country follow after that.

To make a project work, soldiers often have to figure out how to bridge the Iraqi social chasm. One tactic: They ask a contractor to hire some people from the neighborhood where they are building the project, rather than letting the contractor hire only members of his family or ethnic group.

"You've got to be able to work deals here," Knutzen said.

But you've also got to let Iraqis conduct their own business, he said. Americans are here to provide money and see that it's not squandered, and that the projects are completed correctly. The Americans also have learned to get Iraqi officials to accept the completed project before final payment is made.

With inexpensive labor and little red tape, projects in Iraq are faster and cheaper. "Compared to what we pay in the U.S., they're dirt cheap," Knutzen said.

Making water run uphill

Despite the challenges, about 70 projects are under way or finished, including schools, health clinics, churches and mosques, banks, roads, police stations, fire departments, street lights, soccer fields, sewers and water towers.

But some projects have been spectacular failures.

The 25th Infantry Division, which preceded the 116th in Kirkuk, started a water tower project in an Arab neighborhood in south Kirkuk. Arab leaders wanted the tower because the city's water system, which runs from north to south, frequently runs dry by the time it reaches the south part of the city.

"They are convinced it's some political plot to deprive them of water, and they come in every day and tell us that," Knutzen said.

A local contractor built the water tower. Workers incorrectly mixed the concrete in the supports and had to tear it down and rebuild it.

When the $90,000 project was completed, there was another problem: "They forgot to ask if there was water to put in it," Knutzen said.

The nearest well was about 200 yards away.

Now the 116th gets to buy pumps and build a pipeline to fill the tower with water.

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