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Soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard unload lumber in the village of al Angur. Some families will use the wood to burn for heat and cooking, while others will use it for construction projects.
Soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard unload lumber in the village of al Angur. Some families will use the wood to burn for heat and cooking, while others will use it for construction projects. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
Soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard unload lumber in the village of al Angur. Some families will use the wood to burn for heat and cooking, while others will use it for construction projects.
Soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard unload lumber in the village of al Angur. Some families will use the wood to burn for heat and cooking, while others will use it for construction projects. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
As Maj. Brian Melton, executive officer of 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard, listens via a translator, an elderly man tells the mayor of Habbaniyah that villagers won’t stop their work as fishermen to help the U.S. military improve their village.
As Maj. Brian Melton, executive officer of 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard, listens via a translator, an elderly man tells the mayor of Habbaniyah that villagers won’t stop their work as fishermen to help the U.S. military improve their village. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
The mayor of Habbaniyah, Hussein Ali Hussein, takes notes during a visit Monday to an elementary school in the western Iraqi village of al Angur. The school has 400 pupils with only six classrooms. Children told Hussein they often sit four or five to each of the wooden bench desks.
The mayor of Habbaniyah, Hussein Ali Hussein, takes notes during a visit Monday to an elementary school in the western Iraqi village of al Angur. The school has 400 pupils with only six classrooms. Children told Hussein they often sit four or five to each of the wooden bench desks. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

ANGUR, Iraq — In an effort to win over non-converts, Hussein Ali Hussein, the mayor of Habbaniyah, donned a flak vest, jumped into an American Humvee and hit rural towns with the same message: “Help me help you.”

Hussein repeated the plea Monday in decrepit towns in his district in western Iraq plagued by little or no electricity, no drinkable water, few schools, and unsuitable sewage systems.

“I can’t help you if I don’t know what you need,” Hussein, 31, told an elderly man in a wheelchair in the small fisherman enclave of Angur. “We need your help to help the Americans help us.”

No such luck, the elderly man replied.

The residents of Angur will not give up time spent fishing massive Lake Habbaniyah to help the U.S. military dredge the canals, erect water treatment plants or build new schools.

“They will not leave to work on the projects. They will not stop doing their job to help the Americans,” the old man said through a translator.

The man acknowledged the town has needs, including water, power and a medical clinic.

“Inshallah,” he said, “God willing,” they will be solved.

“There are no insurgents here,” he told Hussein. “This is a peaceful village. We are blessed people.”

His last four words frustrated and boggled the minds of Hussein and U.S. soldiers, who have worked to help provide services, one town at a time, in this austere part of Iraq, miles and miles of sand spanning from the banks of the immense lake.

But pumps now barely pull water from litter-filled canals to return a lush green to the wheat and barley fields, said 1st Lt. Ryan Rossman, of 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment of the Minnesota National Guard.

The news isn’t all grim, said Hussein, appointed as Habbaniyah’s mayor by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

About 90 percent of the 91,000 people in his district welcome U.S. military aid and are willing to work with Americans on projects, Hussein said.

Now he’s focusing on that 10 percent.

Villagers, for varying reasons, don’t want to assume responsibility for improvement projects proposed by the military, said Maj. Brian Melton, the 2-136 executive officer.

Some fear retaliation. Others simply aren’t inclined to help.

“This area has been neglected, and it’s our job to help,” Melton said.

The Angur elementary school teaches upwards of 400 pupils in six classrooms. The 12 teachers cram them in as best they can, often four or five to a small wooden bench desk, according to several children who flocked around the 2-136 soldiers, the mayor, and a town sheik during Monday’s visit.

Most will study up to only the sixth grade. There is no middle or high school, the nearest one more than 15 miles away.

And if the lack of transportation doesn’t deter parents from sending their children, the $4-a-day tax to attend a school out of their district keeps the children in Angur.

“The parents agree,” the elderly man told Hussein. “When the students finish elementary school, they stop school. They go with their parents as fishermen.”

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