Western Iraq Rebuilding Moves Forward
By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service
A TOWN IN ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq, Dec. 9, 2005 Reconstruction is now evident here, due to the improved security environment that followed the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.
"After ECCI came to this place, things started to change," said Sheik Abu Ali (left), who preferred neither to be seen nor to use his real name for security reasons and is one of the area's 50 tribal leaders, during a conversation with project manager Jim Holman in Anbar province. "We promised to help secure the area in exchange for jobs for the people. Every day new people are coming to work, buying things that they couldn't afford before." Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Though homes are humble, many of them have bricks stacked or heaped alongside, their second stories inching upward. Roads are pitted and pockmarked, but there's little trash blowing along them.
Too many children wander streets instead of attending school, yet they are markedly cleaner than those normally seen on Iraqi back roads, and almost all of them are wearing shoes.
Even as the U.S. military positioned for that inevitable showdown in Fallujah, government agencies were already masterminding reconstruction of not only Fallujah, but for all of Anbar province Iraq's most problematic region.
The Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence contracted with ECC International to build an Iraqi army base in one of these "nonpermissive areas," where attacks were not only likely, but also expected to be frequent.
Even today, this town's name is undisclosed because of residents' security concerns.
U.S. and Iraqi troops hadn't yet secured Fallujah when ECCI security managers John Boyce and Al Habelman, both retired Special Forces soldiers, took up position at a small base formerly used by Saddam Hussein's army.
At that point, getting money flowing into Anbar province was just as important as renovating a military facility. With Fallujah's scattered militants regrouping in the province's other towns and local residents struggling to provide for their families, a window of opportunity opened.
"The town was empty, hunkered down," Boyce said. "Nobody knew if we could get anyone at all to come here to work." Ten of the town's Iraqi National Guardsmen reported for duty; the second day it was 12; by the 5th day 72 workers came, and the numbers kept climbing.
At least a foot of filth covered the floors and rubble up to several feet deep surrounded abandoned buildings. Brush fed a continuous bonfire, especially at night when the guards had no other way to keep warm. Forgoing dump trucks and front loaders, dozens of hands began cleaning up and began earning a living.
"After ECCI came to this place, things started to change," said Sheik Abu Ali, who preferred not to use his real name for security reasons and is one of the area's 50 tribal leaders. "Rick Ebel (ECCI director of Iraq operations) and Jim Holman (project manager) came to our council. We promised to help secure the area in exchange for jobs for the people. Every day new people are coming to work, buying things that they couldn't afford before."
Under Saddam, sheiks could not form local councils. They were paid to appease their tribes and make life easier for local police and Baath Party officials. Any sheik who didn't accept the gift was physically convinced of the importance of following commands. Saddam's ousting, followed by the army and police deserting the area, opened another window of opportunity.
When looters targeted some government property near the town, Abu Ali hosted the other sheiks for lunch. His suggestion that unity could protect them from these outsiders was not only accepted wholeheartedly, he was named head of the town's council of sheiks.
"Rick and Jim pushed the subcontractors to hire local workers rather than bringing in workers from outside," said Abu Ali.
This was certainly a challenge, as in this isolated area, outside the mainstream, the town had never witnessed modern construction work and teens who have completed middle school are indeed rare.
"We took 10 at a time from each of our three subcontractors on site," said Jim. After two weeks of training, we would turn a couple of them loose with a professional tradesman from Baghdad."
"Some have learned welding, learned how to hang ceilings, fix power cables and water pipes," said Abu Ali. "Some who had never seen a piece of wood before have become carpenters."
"We started with bare hands that knew so little and produced so much," Jim added. "It's turning out to be a beautiful set of buildings."
But amid this reconstruction progress, violence from anti-Iraqi forces continues. "The mortars," said Boyce, pointing to the northwest, "come from here." Rotating 180 degrees, he added, "The rockets (come) from there."
Twelve base buildings that had already been renovated required significant rework after attacks. Workers have been seriously injured.
"People quit because they are afraid and then they don't make any money," said Abu Ali. "It is safer to work for ECCI than to work for the Iraqi army or the police."
"In the beginning, there would be people across the street threatening to kill them, passing out handbills," Boyce said. "We would walk them into town with our AKs (assault rifles). But the workers kept coming."
"When Rick and Jim asked how we could improve the security of the area," he continued, "I suggested they expand their hiring to include people from other nearby villages." Anyone hired onto the project is first reviewed by the local council, which posts three of its sheiks at the gate to facilitate entry screening.
"If I am asked to find 10 workers," Abu Ali finesses diplomatically, "I bring five workers from the other villages and five from our town."
The project is nearing completion and one building at a time, the facilities are being handed over to the Iraqi military. "We were here to create a workforce," Boyce noted. "When you paid them, you could see it in their faces. The payoff for us was to see these people coming alive."
"We had a council meeting recently," Sheik Abu Ali said, "and when the project is finished, the workers want to move where ECCI moves."
Coalition and Iraqi forces continue missions to provide improved security to encourage more voters to take part in Iraq's Dec. 15 general election. Officials hope the results will spur more cooperation in reconstruction programs.
(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International Baghdad, contractor for the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence.)