Two Years in Iraq: 3rd Infantry Division Winning Over Iraqis
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 22, 2005 Riding through the streets of Mahalla, a crowded neighborhood on Baghdad's east side, Army Lt. Col. Jamie Gayton and his soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Troops Battalion are carrying out a quiet mission - but one Gayton believes is going a long way toward winning the peace in Iraq.
Army Lt. Col. Jamie Gayton, commander of the 3rd Infantry Divisions 2nd Brigade Troops Battalion, visits the Mahalla community in eastern Baghdad to check on the status of projects under way there. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
As his Humvee slowly moves over the newly paved road, Gayton waves to the local children who gather and jumps from the vehicle to speak with adults he sees along the street. "What do you think of your new sewer system?" he asks an older man who's lived in the neighborhood for the past 15 years, when its dirt roads frequently filled with standing water and sewage.
Speaking through an interpreter, Gayton asks another resident how the road project, now almost completed, is progressing, only to hear of another need in the community. "I understand," Gayton tells the man, explaining that the coalition and Iraqi government want to work together to improve the neighborhood in as many ways as possible, but also need to spread the projects around to many communities.
He asks if the local residents have noticed any insurgent activity in the area, reminding them of the importance of keeping it in check so the projects can continue uninterrupted.
"I have the best job in the world," said Gayton, whose battalion oversees a wide variety of infrastructure projects under way in the 2nd Brigade's operating area in eastern Baghdad. "I go where the projects are happening, so people are ecstatic."
While much of the brigade's focus is fixed on battling insurgents who threaten Iraq's security, Gayton and his battalion are countering the threat in a different way: by winning the Iraqi people's support for the coalition.
Iraqis basically fall into three camps, he explained. Some Iraqis "are very supportive" of the coalition and new government and some, including the insurgents, "are absolutely against us." But there's a huge percentage in the middle, not yet committed to either side, and ready to be swayed by how they're treated, he said.
"They're looking to see which side is going to come through with its promises," Gayton said. "Their choice is between the insurgents and the coalition."
Gayton and his battalion are working to make the choice as easy as possible. They work through local sheiks, neighborhood advisory councils and municipal authorities to identify local needs - which are many in what he called the "have-not" neighborhoods in eastern Baghdad who received little more than promises from Saddam Hussein.
After identifying needs, the soldiers coordinate with potential funding sources, including the Iraqi government, the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds committed by the U.S. government and overseen by the Defense Department's Program Contracting Office, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Office of Transition Initiatives and nongovernmental agencies among them.
Most contracts awarded require that the work be done by Iraqis from the local community being served. This, Gayton explained, helps ensure much-needed jobs for Iraqis, while making local community members active players in the improvements.
"They're doing the work and doing the construction," Gayton said. "What we're doing is helping to infuse some funding to help."
Projects run the gamut, from a 15-mile-long sewer line repair from Sadr City to water projects that bring drinkable water to homes that have never had it before to electrical systems that bring power to individual homes. Smaller-scale projects include street projects and trash removal services for communities that have never before had them.
Regardless of the scope of the projects, Gayton said he sees daily evidence that they're sending a message to the Iraqis about the coalition's commitment and encouraging Iraqis to make renewed pride in their communities.
The result, he said, is a win-win situation: a more secure environment, improved conditions for Iraqis and safer conditions for troops.
And because all projects are carried out in partnership with the Iraqi government, it's also helping give the Iraqis faith in their new government institutions, he said, something they never had in the former regime.
"When they start seeing positive things, there's a snowball effect," he said. "It's a snowball running downhill, and we're a part of that snowball."
And the progress of that snowball, he said, "gives people hope and helps them see the light at the end of the tunnel."