A villager fills a water tank with clear, clean water from a purification system financed by the U.S. and built by Iraqi workers at the village of Albu Bali, Iraq. The system will provide 500 people with clean water for the first time in decades.

A villager fills a water tank with clear, clean water from a purification system financed by the U.S. and built by Iraqi workers at the village of Albu Bali, Iraq. The system will provide 500 people with clean water for the first time in decades. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

ALBU BALI, Iraq — Water — cool, clear and clean — is poured Wednesday from a pipe and into the waiting trailer a local man had pulled there with his tractor.

Water this pure has been a fantasy around these parts for decades. The locals have been drinking, cooking and laundering with filthy, putrid brown water from the nearby Tigris River and its adjoining canals, water used by livestock to cool off and water chock-full of illness-causing bacteria.

Col. Gary Braddock, commander of the 372nd Engineer Group, part of the Army Reserve from Des Moines, Iowa, said he often visits villages in the area to ask what is needed and hears one answer over and over.

“That is the single most important thing I can do for them — give them clean water,” he said soon after sparkling water started flowing at Albu Bali, a tiny, isolated village on the river’s banks.

The new purification system, paid for by American dollars but built with Iraqi labor, will provide clean water to more than 500 people, said Ismail Khaleem, the local village leader on whose land the system was built.

“It’s very important for the village,” he said through a translator. “We drank water directly from the river, without any purification.”

Now, the water still will come from the river, but it will be purified and chlorinated before it is used.

Iraq has the second highest rate of infant mortality in the world, said Maj. Chuck Larson of the 372nd. One reason is the poor quality of drinking water. The $36,000 spent to build the system now producing clean water will save many lives for many years.

The big day for Albu Bali was just the latest for several villages around Logistics Support Area Anaconda, the Army’s sprawling supply base in Iraq.

The 13th Corps Support Command’s civil affairs unit has completed 85 projects of various types since it arrived 10 months ago.

Those projects include 14 refurbished schools, three new schools, six health clinics, two police stations and an ongoing cleaning of a canal.

But the emphasis recently has been on water.

“Five months ago we made a fundamental shift,” said Col. Nick Zoeller, the corps’ civil affairs officer. “We found out most of these people needed water.”

The Albu Bali project is the fourth water project completed. Twenty more are under way.

The idea to place purification systems in the villages replaces a civil affairs plan started by another unit a year ago to drill wells. Zoeller said the wells came up dry or the water was too salty.

Zoeller said the idea of any project is to enhance the local economy at the same time. That’s why Iraqi labor is used, the project going to the lowest bidder, just like in the States. So far, the projects have pumped $4.5 million into the local economy.

Although the civil affairs troops get the projects going, tenant units at LSA Anaconda take charge of overseeing their completion through a program called Anaconda Neighborhood.

For the water system, Marines building a bridge near the village kept an eye on construction.

“It’s rewarding to see there is progress being made and the Iraqis are helping themselves,” said Capt. Dean Stouffer. “It’s this kind of change that is going to prevent fighting in the future.”

Planning for such projects has to consider the future, too — an Iraq without an American presence. For example, who will maintain the water system in Albu Bali?

Zoeller said that is now the responsibility of the man working for the province, as well as the local city council. What Zoeller doesn’t want to happen is for Khaleem, who donated the land, to consider the water to be his property and try to sell it.

Maj. Steve Lancaster, deputy civil affairs officer, said, “If this falls apart when we leave, we’ve achieved nothing.”

To that end, too, they try to spread around their projects to various factions, making sure one tribe is not favored over another.

The progress of these projects is painstakingly slow in a country that is about the size of California with a population of about 25 million. But school by school, clinic by clinic, water system by water system, the civil affairs soldiers think they are having an impact.

Everywhere they lend a hand, Zoeller said, they make friends. That has a direct benefit on the 140,000 U.S. troops now stationed in this land and subject to attack from unfriendly Iraqis.

“We look at it as saving American lives when we do this,” Zoeller said.

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