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Maj. Jake Kulzer, second from right, head of civil-military operations for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota Army National Guard, discusses local needs with sheiks from the Al-Ghizi tribe of southern Iraq.

Maj. Jake Kulzer, second from right, head of civil-military operations for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota Army National Guard, discusses local needs with sheiks from the Al-Ghizi tribe of southern Iraq. (Anita Powell / S&S)

Maj. Jake Kulzer, second from right, head of civil-military operations for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota Army National Guard, discusses local needs with sheiks from the Al-Ghizi tribe of southern Iraq.

Maj. Jake Kulzer, second from right, head of civil-military operations for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota Army National Guard, discusses local needs with sheiks from the Al-Ghizi tribe of southern Iraq. (Anita Powell / S&S)

Locals in Fraiha village say their needs are simple, including clean, fresh water.

Locals in Fraiha village say their needs are simple, including clean, fresh water. (Anita Powell / S&S)

NEAR NASIRIYAH, Iraq — In tiny Fraiha village, Fryoula Haddoud cast a mournful glance over a barrel full of dun-colored water recently scooped from the Euphrates River.

“This is all we have to drink,” said the 40-year-old woman in Arabic as she watched her daughter ladle water into a smaller bucket. “It’s very salty. It makes the children sick.”

For residents of this rural, quiet swath of southern Iraq, the war against terror boils down to simpler issues: water, electricity, new roads and schools.

But beneath Haddoud’s heartbreakingly simple needs lies a complex web of tribal power plays; squabbles among newly elected, inexperienced local leaders; and the nightmarish complexity of the American reconstruction effort.

Maj. Jake Kulzer, head of civil-military operations for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota Army National Guard, has been handed the task of navigating the system in order to bring essential services to locals.

Kulzer, 34, meets almost daily with tribal sheiks, elected leaders and ordinary citizens to assess their needs and determine priorities.

“We’re not trying to win Iraq,” said Kulzer, a Minneapolis resident. “All we’re trying to do is do our best in our area. What I really want is in our sector for everyone to have access to clean drinking water.”

But three years into the war in Iraq, the landscape is still marred with corruption, power struggles and safety concerns.

“It’s ‘The Sopranos,’ ” he joked. “Only they’re wearing dishdashas.”

On a recent visit to a small village, local leaders showed Kulzer a recently completed but inoperable water plant. Kulzer toured the facility wonderingly, noting the inexplicable absence of a reverse osmosis unit. The unit would remove much of the water’s salt content, rendering it drinkable.

“I don’t understand,” he said, noting that the plant appeared to have been built with American materials. “This is too nice a plant not to work.”

A local sheik proposed that his construction company could fix the problem for $100,000.

“That’s $50,000 for the plant," Kulzer countered, “and $50,000 for the sheik fee?”

As sheiks from the prominent Al-Ghizi tribe presented Kulzer and his colleagues with an extravagant lunch, members of the civil affairs team joked and talked with leaders about the area’s myriad needs. Between raucous stories, small talk and several cups of sugary tea, the two-hour feast yielded about 15 minutes of serious discussion.

Capt. Colin Fleming, the unit’s deputy commander, said that in civil affairs in Iraq, gaining leaders’ trust over time is paramount.

“Everything is so relationship-based that the context of what’s going on is probably more important than the actual facts in this discussion,” said the 39-year-old Burnsville, Minn., resident.

Kulzer added that the local leaders — many of whom own construction companies — are also trying to foster a profitable relationship with their American guests, who dispense reconstruction contracts.

“The reason they have us for lunch is the money. If I have no fuloos,” Kulzer said, using the Arabic word for “money,” “I have no lunch. It’s as simple as that.”

But with a newly formed national government and a slate of local leaders, why are Americans still in the picture?

“You don’t just stand up a government overnight,” Kulzer said. “This thing’s going to take time. So you can say, ‘Hey, it’s your problem, you’ve got to deal with it,’ but be prepared for it to fail miserably.”

At this time, he said, “there’s not a tremendous amount of faith in the government. But at least they’re working with it now.”

Members of the civil affairs team say they would be personally willing to continue the slow process of rebuilding the country.

“If we have to be back here, this is exactly what I want to be doing,” Fleming said. “You get to go out and interact with the people. To go out, you find out how much these people aren’t really too different from us.”

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