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In Iraq, a Failure to Deliver the Spoils
NY Times
August 13, 2006

THEY were just two tribal sheiks from a town so small it does not appear on most maps, and they were meeting two weeks ago in the local police station with an American officer to talk about reconstruction projects. Still, they could have been old-time Chicago ward heelers looking out for the neighborhood when a little pork barrel was at stake.

And the sheiks, Abu Jawad and Abu Ghazwan, had not gotten their piece of the action. An American military man they remembered only as Captain Burns had come to their town, a dusty place around 30 miles south of Baghdad, and left without coming through on his promises of electricity projects, water projects, schools, said the sheiks and the local police commander, Lt. Col. Hussein Daher Layg.

The sheiks' disappointment had nothing to do with America's wider strategic aims in Iraq. Rather, explained the sheiks, suited up in traditional checked headdresses and formal robes, dishdashas, they simply could not look their people in the eye after passing on the promises they had received.

The episode said everything about where the failures of the American reconstruction program in Iraq have had their greatest impact — community by community, block by block, house by house as the lights do not go on and water does not squirt from the taps. In Iraq, politics is not merely local: it can seem microscopic, with winners and losers on every crumbling street corner as projects succeed and fail.

"We meet here a lot and you promise us a lot, and nothing happens," said Abu Jawad. "When I go to my people and say, ‘Next week, next week,' they start to say I'm lying."

And it was left to a new American officer, Capt. Jocolby Phillips of the 4th Infantry Division, to banish a ghost of broken promises in Iraq, and repair the loss of credibility wrought by this torn stitch in the American enterprise here.

"You will not hear me promise something to you that I will not deliver," said Captain Phillips, an earnest young officer from the West Texas town of Kermit, whose population was 6,000 when he played high school football there. "I hope that will be the start of building trust again with the American forces."

In the United States, the question of the effectiveness of the roughly $45 billion in rebuilding generally boils down to a statistical debate, with proponents saying that thousands of projects have been completed, and critics pointing to thousands that are incomplete or have not even started.

With most of the American-taxpayer money for rebuilding set to run out this year, that debate has become sharper. But it is beside the point in Iraq, where sentiment on the street is overwhelmingly dismissive of a reconstruction effort prolific in press releases but with little clear impact on people's lives.

Just as important in Iraq, there is no tribal or local political leader who can take credit for something as amorphous as megawatts added to Iraq's national electrical grid or increased oil production.

For that reason, the reconstruction successes in Iraq seem to be almost always on narrow, targeted, geographically and demographically limited projects. In Diyarah, a mixed Sunni-Shiite town a few miles from Tounis, Captain Phillips and Sgt. First Class Michael H. Taylor, both in D Company of the division's 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, showed off a brand new electrical generator and a water plant whose pipes were being laid in fresh trenches along the city streets.

There was a smiling Sunni imam, Saleh Hassan al-Wan, the Americans' main contact in the town, who said that people who had recently left Diyarah were now moving back because of the generator. He said he was aware that the town of Tounis was jealous of Diyarah's success with reconstruction.

"We go to sleep and we can get good sleep because of the new generator," the imam said.

Walking through the streets of Diyarah like a beat cop on his rounds, Captain Phillips said that problems with Shiite militias in Tounis were one factor in slowing the rebuilding there. But during his meeting in Tounis, he spent much of his time trying to undo the damage wrought by promises large and small, some apparently delivered by the mysterious Captain Burns, which were never delivered to the local chieftains the Americans desperately want on their side.

"The promises that he made, obviously he was not able to fulfill on that," an exasperated Captain Phillips said, "and that was wrong."

But as justifiable as the sheiks' outrage appeared to be on certain points, it was also clear that they were playing a game as old as pork barrel politics: working over a well-intentioned official with money to spend and giving it all they had.

The local police chief played his role as host perfectly, too, offering lengthy speeches in praise of the Americans but then warning that if the projects did not materialize soon, the chief might call for a meeting and find, to his chagrin, that none of the Iraqi elders would attend.

"We need to show all the people here that the coalition forces are not liars," the police chief said.

The sheiks hammered Captain Phillips from every possible angle. When Abu Ghazwan asked why Latifiya, another town just up the road, had been getting projects when Tounis was not, the captain replied that the town was in a different unit's area of responsibility — a fact that the canny sheiks surely knew.

When Captain Phillips reminded them that he was in fact prepared to spread some sugar and finally bring some projects to Tounis, Abu Jawad had an answer: "There are three small projects and none of them has been delivered so far."

Captain Phillips, speaking as patiently as possible to his translator, said of one of those projects: "Here is what they must understand. It is a small project for Tounis. But all across Iraq, everyone is doing —— "

"Sir!" Abu Jawad interrupted. "You are not just a military man. You are also a politician and a very good one. Because we have gotten only a mirage."

Max Becherer contributed reporting for this article.

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