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Linda Specht, director of Camp Taji’s embedded provincial reconstruction team, surveys a spice store at the Saab al Bor market on Thursday. The PRT is working to promote more investment in the market, but free grants from U.S. sources have discouraged many locals from looking into loan or credit programs.

Linda Specht, director of Camp Taji’s embedded provincial reconstruction team, surveys a spice store at the Saab al Bor market on Thursday. The PRT is working to promote more investment in the market, but free grants from U.S. sources have discouraged many locals from looking into loan or credit programs. (Leo Shane III / S&S)

SAAB AL BOR, Iraq — Despite the growing population and thriving marketplace in this city, Linda Specht can’t get locals to take out low-interest Iraqi government loans to improve their businesses.

"Nobody wants to borrow because U.S. grants are still available," the director of Camp Taji’s embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team said. "Why use the credit program when you can get money for free?"

As cities like this one begin to rebuild after years of fighting, Specht and her team have begun looking at the long-term plans for business, government and community reconstruction. Help from U.S. assets is an important step forward, she said, but eventually military and Iraqi government officials need to find a way to survive on their own.

Before 2003, Saab al Bor was a retirement community for military officers in Saddam Hussien’s army. The city sits a few miles north of Baghdad and was nearly completely dependent on the capital’s leadership for electricity and sewer maintenance, retail sales and basic government decisions on day-to-day functions.

Thomas Simpson, a government affairs specialist with the PRT, said that left no experts on city management or good governance once Hussien’s government fell. That has made rebuilding a slow process.

More than 60,000 residents lived here before fighting began, but the U.S. assault and sectarian violence that followed drove the population down to about 2,000 full-time residents by summer 2007.

Specht said that in the last year the population has risen again to almost 30,000, thanks to major repair work by military officials on essential services and those business grants handed out to shop owners. Today, the streets are lined with food stands and clothing shops, many of which have stayed in business over the last few months because of microgrants from U.S. officials.

"But the microgrant program is not sustainable for these communities," she said. "What it does do is get things started and create a stake for the community in something they don’t want to lose."

While U.S. military officials have worked with the Iraqi army to patrol the highways and secure the back alleys of the isolated area, the PRT workers have begun working with politicians on how to prioritize the town’s needs, how to find national government money for rebuilding projects, and how to better respond to local residents’ concerns.

City officials held their first open town hall meeting last week, attracting dozens of local business owners. U.S. troops still provided security for the event, but Simpson called it an important step forward.

Most of the military goals are focused on short-term success, Specht said: getting guns out of the neighborhood, keeping key areas safe, encouraging locals to report problems to U.S. or Iraqi security officials.

But her team is more focused the long-term potential of meetings like the public forum.

While local residents talked about getting more shops in the market, the PRT workers discussed ideas for storefronts more permanent than the carts that populate the market now. As farmers talked about ways to increase their yield, the PRT workers brainstormed possibilities for processing plants in the area.

"Not everything they do here is going to succeed," Specht said. "What we need them to do is try, and give themselves a chance."


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