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 services and logistics 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 Maliki’s government runs deep, not only because of sectarian suspicions but because of its inability to pass major legislation and slowness in providing essential services such as electricity and potable water.
Government ministries also are too slow to spend money on capital projects, according to the latest quarterly report of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. Overall, ministries had spent only 36% of their capital budgets for 2007 as of Nov. 1, says the report, which came out this month. It cited lack of trained budget personnel, stringent and daunting 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 stayed 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 for the building.
On two recent mornings, the courtyard outside was crowded with women carrying coughing children. One woman got a prescription for asthma medication for her daughter, only to be told the medicine wasn’t available at the clinic’s pharmacy and should be bought on the black market.
“It’ll cost twice as much!” she yelled angrily.
Haider said that two years ago, U.S. troops routinely provided diesel, gasoline and batteries to his clinic and repaired 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%,” 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. For one thing, money for U.S.-led projects won’t last forever. A 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 small-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 the 2008 fiscal year is 20% less than the amount approved in 2007, said Maj. Joseph Price, the program coordinator for Iraq.
The situation has thrust U.S. officials into matchmaker roles as they try 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.
One such meeting took place last month in Saba al Bor, when officials from several Baghdad ministries, including health and education, were brought to meet leaders and tour the town. The needs and the impatience of local officials quickly became clear.
At the clinic, the head nurse cornered a Health Ministry inspector and bellowed at him to provide more staff and equipment. During a walk through town, residents griped about a lack of drinking water.
Within weeks, both issues had been addressed because of the face-to-face encounters, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Nationwide, however, the needs are immense, and U.S. officials acknowledge that things move slowly when the central government is involved. Much of that is the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which discouraged anyone but top-ranking Baath Party officials from making decisions. Provincial and local officials had no power to demand action by the national government and have had to learn to push for what they need.
“One has to be pretty sympathetic. They’re basically building up these patterns of doing business and building budgets and interacting with the central government from scratch,” said a U.S. reconstruction official in northern Iraq, who asked not to be identified by name.
Some local officials say sectarian interests in the Shiite-led government also slow progress. The Sunni headmaster at a school in Saba al Bor, Ali Aziz Sultan, said the Ministry of Education did not provide equal money or staff to schools in the Sunni area of town and in the Shiite districts. As of late November, there was only one school with six classrooms serving 500 pupils in Saba al Bor’s Sunni area, Sultan said.
U.S. troops stationed in the town agreed. Sectarian interests in some ministries “still aren’t letting things happen,” said Capt. Timothy Dugan of the 7th Cavalry, 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Until they set aside such feelings, “they’re going to continue to have these problems,” said Dugan, who for a year has watched Saba al Bor try to recover from its sectarian strife.
The GAO report said sectarianism also was slowing the opening of public health centers in Baghdad. It said “a number” of centers have not opened in part because of “problems within the Ministry of Health, including a sectarian agenda that determined which” clinics would open.
Steven Buckler, a U.S. reconstruction expert who works in Salahuddin province in the north, said security gains were helping local and provincial officials overcome obstacles.
He said officials were less afraid of being recognized when they traveled to Baghdad or were seen in public, so they were becoming more assertive.
“I’d say in about the last three months, we’re seeing the Iraqi public officials standing up more and more in that independent way, to take charge of their own events,” said Buckler, whose provincial reconstruction team is one of 25 across Iraq.
Baucom traces Saba al Bor’s transition to the broken generator, which he says was repaired with the national government’s help. It took about three weeks to get the parts, longer than had U.S. forces stepped in.
“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.”