Abib Hassan's chicken farm outside Taji is an unusually ambitious enterprise in an area where, like many rural parts of Iraq, agriculture has struggled to recover after years of neglect.

Abib Hassan's chicken farm outside Taji is an unusually ambitious enterprise in an area where, like many rural parts of Iraq, agriculture has struggled to recover after years of neglect. (Michael Gisick / S&S)

TAJI, Iraq — It’s not very hard to find Abib Hassan’s chicken factory. Follow the not entirely pleasant smell through some fields, pass the woman and her two children who smilingly introduce themselves as “guards,” and you’ve arrived.

In one building, 10,000 birds cluck away their days in small cages, an aging conveyor belt carrying grain with another collecting eggs. In another building, thousands of chicks run in downy flocks as a man and two girls prepare a vaccine for their water.

Hassan, wearing a gray sweater-vest and speaking in gently accented English, is happy to be back after a “miserable” yearlong exile in Egypt.

“Even if we’re not making a profit, we’re trying to restart our life here because these families need work,” he says. “Many of them go back 20 years with us.”

As American commanders push economic initiatives in an effort to build on last year’s security gains, in rural areas they envision a future that looks much like the past — which means farming. But rebuilding the agricultural system, they say, means confronting the same mix of decayed infrastructure, bureaucratic corruption and sectarian mistrust that plagues many levels of Iraqi life.

Security concerns continue to hamper the distribution network. Few farmers are able to move their goods beyond the closest market, limiting the development of economies of scale. Add faulty electrical service and high fuel prices, and Syrian chickens remain less expensive on the Iraqi market than Iraqi ones.

The problem is, Hassan notes, he’s not making any profit. The lack of reliable electricity means he has to use generators to power the air conditioners that keep the chicken factory from becoming a chicken oven — a problem that’s going to get much worse as temperatures rise.

“All the money we get from the eggs goes to buy fuel for the generators,” he says.

Still, even an unprofitable enterprise like his stands as an ambitious anomaly here and in other rural areas of Iraq — an ancient breadbasket where agriculture rarely rises much above the level of the kitchen garden these days.

Not all the problems with Iraqi agriculture are particularly new. The United Nations “oil for food” program and years of sanctions that cut exports depressed demand for Iraqi foodstuffs, driving down prices and production, U.S. officials say.

The big picture fixes will take some time, commanders say. Under the Iraqi government’s current plan, electrical service likely won’t improve substantially here until 2009 or 2010, when new power plants are set to come online. For now, commanders remain focused on hiring local contractors to clean weed- and trash-choked irrigation canals and patching over what problems they can.

There is, for example, the case of the irrigation canal that runs by Hassan’s chicken factory, which Army Lt. Col. Bob McAleer explains as he and Hassan stand outside in the lee of the chicken smell.

For several years, the canal carried no water. Last year, Hassan interjects, 70 percent of the trees died, and many of the fields in the area, according to U.S. officers, haven’t been planted in four years because of the lack of water and the sectarian fighting that erupted in 2006.

So a few months ago, McAleer, commander of Fires Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, says, he decided to find out what the problem was with the canal. The immediate issue, he says, was that the pump station that feeds the canal was only getting about a half-hour of electricity a day. The pump station got its juice from lines that ran through a nearby factory, and at the factory McAleer says he discovered the problem. A worker, he says, was taking bribes to divert the power meant for the pump station to a residential neighborhood, McAleer says.

“You were getting no water so that those people could air condition their houses,” he tells Hassan, who nods as if he is not at all surprised. But now, McAleer continues, the pump station is running 18 hours a day, and the fields here are greening up.

“That’s good,” Hassan says. “If we could have electricity here even half the day, we would be fine.”

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