Civil Affairs helps local Iraqis recover from war, looting
August 24, 2003
DIWANIYA, Iraq — To Keloid Rheem, the biology teacher at the girls’ primary school in the village Shanafiya, the new Iraq is missing many things.
The supplies, furniture and fixtures taken from her classroom by looters, the power that would run the fans and lights. And the order necessary to restore her small community to the way it was.
“Only picture,” Rheem says, motioning to her empty classroom. Looters took everything but the science posters on a few walls. “All gone.”
U.S. Army Maj. Rich Appel, a reservist with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, looks over the school, at the broken windows and gutted rooms.
Over the course of several months, he will examine several hundred classrooms, home to thousands of pupils, to restore education in the Al Qadisiyah province.
The education, finance, utility, health care and business sectors in Iraq were devastated during the war. Many had been near collapse even before the war.
To rebuild the country, Coalition Forces established civil affairs groups — Government Support Teams — to assess and repair physical and civic infrastructure.
It’s a massive reconstruction for civil affairs.
“We haven’t done this kind of scope since World War II,” said Maj. John Hope, from Jefferson City, Mo., who leads the 432nd Battalion. “We’re just putting everything back together.”
The first step was establishing security and finding the money to work with.
Teams are training new Iraqi police officers, while others work to repay wages going back several months. U.S. soldiers and Marines patrol day and night.
Trucks of U.S. dollars were shipped in to help repay civil servants, pensioners and former soldiers. The U.S. government repaid the April salaries for 30,000 people in the province during June and gave them a $50 bonus.
“That’s to make up for the loss of income because of the war,” Hope said. The payments help infuse money into the local economy to quickly repair the damages brought on by war.
It’s simple economics, easy on paper, but more challenging in reality. The process requires combing through records to verify employment histories, followed by long, tense lines of people coming to collect their money.
“It was a zoo,” Hope said. “People pushing, shoving, kicking, biting. It was an absolute near-riot every day.”
The team will pay civil servants, former soldiers, pensioners and farmers through a crop buy-back plan.
“They’re thrilled when they get paid,” said Sgt. First Class Lahela Corrigan, a team member from Seymour, Wis. “We’re pumping money into the local economy. People are able to buy goods.”
The result is evident where markets and shops have reopened since the payments began, and a sense of normalcy settles on the community.
“It’s working here, so [unlike in other parts of the country] there’s no problems,” Corrigan added.
In his civilian job, Hope is a stockbroker with Edward Jones and Corrigan is an accountant clerk. Appel is a school principal.
The civil affairs teams use their members’ best skills, but anyone can do any job.
“We bring our own civilian skills to the military,” Appel said. “The active forces have a hard time doing that.”
What’s unusual is the command. The battalion usually falls under the 2nd Armored Division, but because the division was still in the north when the mission got underway and the 1st Marine Division was based across the south where reconstruction has been needed, the Army Reserve battalion was assigned to the Marines.
Hope’s battalion fell under the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
The partnership is helping in many ways — Marines offer security to the civil affairs teams and work jointly to collect intelligence and curb crime.
They also benefit from spreading goodwill — winning hearts and minds, as civil affairs people say. Marines patrolling outside greet children while the government support teams rebuild.
“Every day you go out, you touch lives,” Hope said. “You do good — it’s a huge warm and fuzzy.”
On a bright, hot day in Iraq, members of the government support team from Diwaniya headed out on what they call a road show.
In Humvees, with Marine escorts, the group arrived in the dusty town of Shanafiya for the day. The team splits into groups — Appel to the schools, others to the power plants and fire station. They meet with local leaders and ask what they can do to help. The answers are never terse.
Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, schools suffered heavily. Money ran dry, and Iraqi soldiers stored artillery and ordnance in grade schools.
“It’s challenging to try to get their cooperation and patience,” Appel said of the Iraqis. “I know they’ve been oppressed so long. There’s so many needs it’s overwhelming.”
Back home in Chilton, Wis., Appel has 420 pupils to manage. In Iraq, it’s 183,000.
He’ll help the schools rebuild, refurnish and resupply. But there’s a long road ahead.
“You want to be fair,” he said. “If you’re going to start handing out supplies, you have to make sure there are enough for each student. Otherwise, you might do more harm than good.”
Appel will seek help from several sources: non-governmental organizations, even his own hometown. His school collected 16 boxes of supplies, which his Lions Club chapter paid to ship over.
School restoration began the moment combat ended. U.S. Marines started the process, including repairing the former Saddam School in Diwaniya, renamed al-Karama School.
Marines painted, then Navy Seabees and later civilian contractors finished the restoration. For the grand opening, the battalion installed a new brass school bell, one of about 200 the Marines have purchased for the schools they’ll restore in the region.
“We will have a brand new education system in place, at least in this province,” Hope said. “There’s a sense of normalcy returning.”
While the schools offer hope, electricity poses a more difficult problem. Circuits in the country were controlled in Baghdad to give Hussein the ability to flip off a town’s power.
“Saddam used that to basically control the population,” Hope said.
As the Government Support Teams meet with local leaders to discuss improvements, they ask the leaders to support the coalition.
“We will support the coalition forces to the end,” one village leader tells Appel through a translator. “But there is no [electrical] power, no security.”
Patience is the hardest part.
“They always want to know when,” said Sgt. Andrew Baldock, machine-gun section leader for the weapons platoon for Company L, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, who visits with Appel and collects intelligence. “The biggest problem here is waiting.”