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Inching toward a new Iraq

Johnny Meyer

Originally published 06.22.2008

With little fanfare and no speeches, my unit and I came back from Iraq in March. The quiet return was an appropriate ending to a tour that finished long before the war will reach its final chapter.

The time passed unevenly, much as it had when I was an infantryman in Afghanistan. Unlike that deployment, this one came involuntarily after two years of civilian life. In another change, I spent far more time behind a desk in Iraq than behind a gun. The job still carried with it a certain amount of pressure, but it was much better than the first time. We did not finish with a win or a loss, yet still it felt better. The air conditioning helped; the Sadrists' cease-fire helped more.

Stationed in Baghdad, I worked for an organization that brought together several U.S. government agencies to develop the capacity of the Iraqi government. It was called a provincial reconstruction team, or PRT, a name that fails to convey the depth and range of the work we did and, in my mind, fails to justify it. The word "reconstruction" sounds tied to brick and mortar, and though that might be useful, physical building should be the job of the Iraqis - they have ample funds for the task. Our job was to influence the development of the fledgling Iraqi government and, to some degree, the society itself.

In my specific role, I managed the Iraqi staff members of the PRT who lived and worked throughout Baghdad. For the most part, I held an operational role, but the part of my job that best illuminates the efforts of the PRT as a whole was my work with a program called General Information Centers. Those bureaus consisted of small offices co-located with parts of the local government, and they served as conduits of aid and information among the U.S. government, the people of Iraq and the Iraqi government.

I was not immediately sold on the idea. I walked into a management role prepared to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and I expected the worst in government excess. Because the centers' employees worked in satellite offices outside the fortified Green Zone, I could only go to the offices on rare occasions, and I held a natural distrust of that which I could not touch and see for myself.

This skepticism did not last long.

The Iraqis working at the centers quickly demonstrated an ability to execute tasks far beyond their training and with an enthusiasm common to the Iraqi way of doing business. An Iraqi who wants to get something done, or get a point across, will amplify his stance with words and gestures that political pundit James Carville could not compete with on his best (or worst) days. At the higher levels of government, these demonstrations may be omitted to suit Western tastes, but where we worked, the show was on.

At the centers, much of this enthusiasm was spent on gathering information about energy production, city services and life in general in a city of 6 million people, a large percentage of whom are displaced and staying with relatives or living in someone else's house. These topics sound pedestrian until you measure the influence of the militias that work against, with or for the government. To keep abreast of life in Baghdad is to swim in a storm, and the centers provided a sort of life preserver.

America has been accused of ignoring the pulse of the people in Arabic countries and of focusing only on the current regime, or perhaps the loudest mouthpiece. The centers offered one way to respond to that criticism.

Civilian skills tapped for new roles

Outside of my immediate lane, the PRT worked on a tremendous variety of projects that you would not normally associate with the military, the State Department or any sort of counterinsurgency effort whatsoever. We tried to cover budget execution, budget distribution, contractor coordination and more.

One of the people I worked with was Sgt. 1st Class Greg Craighead, a fellow Austinite. Craighead is further down the road than I am in rank and years, both on the civilian side and with the military. In Austin, he works for IBM, but in Iraq much of his time was spent developing small-businesses initiatives, and occasionally coordinating with the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce. As a senior noncommissioned officer, he put a lot of effort into ensuring the accountability of everyone in his section. Between his military training and civilian career, I think he was pretty well prepared for the mission he was asked to accomplish.

Not everyone fell into a job that corresponded with his civilian skills. We had a medic, Sgt. 1st Class George Schaffer, working on the coordination of solid waste (trash) transfers. Some people, like Schaffer, went out of their way to execute a task they were not trained for. In his case, the results exceeded expectations, but this could not be considered the norm.

Our work to assuage sectarian fears had some impact, as suggested by the decline in Shiite-Sunni violence, and the Sunnis' sudden and violent rejection of al Qaeda elements that they had worked with during some phases of the insurgency.

As of March, the drop in violence only took the number of attacks down to a level last seen in 2005, but it was still a welcome change compared with daily mortar attacks on our trailers, or the sniper fire at the mayor's office. Thanks in part to Saddam Hussein's insistence on shell-resistant buildings, the violence did not affect us as it could have; the mortars tended to blow up on the roof rather than on the copy machine.

To give credit where credit is due, the "surge" was effective in demonstrating America's willingness to stay in Iraq, or perhaps its inability to get out.

This facilitated two other factors in the decrease in violence that played a far larger role than any increase in troop numbers.

The first factor was the foundation of the Sunni Awakening militia movement, and Sunnis' sudden willingness to work for American cash. The movement consists of roughly 80,000 armed men each earning $300 per month, and they are largely Sunni Arabs, many of whom used to work with the insurgency.

The second factor was the August 2007 cease-fire called by Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of a militia called Jaysh al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army. Sadr, who is often labeled an anti-American firebrand for his anti-occupation rhetoric, called the cease-fire to rebuild his tarnished image among Iraqis and to regain control over his militia, which had become akin to an unwieldy mob after the violence of 2006 and 2007.

The successful advent of the cease-fire surprised more than a few Americans, as we did not think Sadr had the influence or the ability to rein in his militia. We were wrong.

Working against U.S. interests

It is disconcerting that one of the biggest threats to the decrease in violence appears to be the government I spent the past year working with. The Shiite-dominated Ministry of Interior, responsible for the Iraqi police, refuses to integrate the majority of the Awakening movement into its forces. The Sunnis need local cops they can trust, but the Shiite-dominated government does not appear interested in accommodating this need.

The second obstacle the Iraqi government presents is its recent decision to crack down on the followers of Sadr in Basra and elsewhere. With provincial elections approaching this fall, the crackdown is not just suspicious, it's damning. The Sadrists presented the greatest electoral threat to Iraqis now in office at the provincial level, and their allies at the national level, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, executed the push against the Sadrists with little debate.

Some Americans may consider themselves pragmatic and say that it's for the best that someone like Sadr not be allowed to gain strength through the elections. But Sadr, unlike the political party of those now holding sway over the Baghdad provincial council, is an Iraqi nationalist interested in a unified Iraq.

Many of those on Baghdad's provincial council are members of Badr Corps, a group that lived in Iran for years and remains closely tied to Iran. So it is unfortunate that the government we are working with occasionally moves in a direction that is not parallel to our own, if not directly against us.

Ironically, the Iraqis in Badr Corps are some of the people most willing to talk to us. We could walk into their offices, drink tea and listen to them ask us for money for some kind of project or another. If we wanted the project more than they did, we said yes, but most of the time we said no; if they wanted it badly enough they would find a way to pay for it themselves. Some of the Badr Corps members, like the governor of Baghdad, Hussein al-Tahan, demonstrated a remarkable level of courage and an honest willingness to reach out to Sunnis.

Noting the governor's attempts at reconciliation, we once asked him to define his overall strategy to overcome the sectarian divisions. He replied that the divisions were an unnatural blemish, and that all that was truly necessary was to rebuild the trust between people who had lived together for years. The sheer carnage of 2006 suggests otherwise, but the relative calm before the invasion - a calm brought on by Saddam's ruthlessness - portends the possibility of peace, though perhaps not the kind our country would like to achieve.

It is too late to disband the government we've created and start anew. It certainly could not be done at a cost in lives and money that America or the world is willing to pay. Instead, using what influence we have, we must try to guide this debacle to some kind of end, preferably one that's beneficial to the United States.

The deployment was good to finish.

Physically and mentally, I could have kept going. Unlike my previous deployment as an infantryman, this assignment kept me out of direct gunfights, and our tools for measuring progress focused on contacts made, plans established and projects executed. These are decidedly more psyche-friendly benchmarks than targets destroyed or sectors cleared.

Some things will be all right. Selfishly, I can say that they are already better for me.

Johnny Meyer was an Army staff sergeant. He has completed his service and is majoring in English and government at UT.