Support our mission

SAAB AL BOR, Iraq — Last week, a woman was putting out bunches of greens at the produce and meat market in this small town near Baghdad. They cost her customers about 25 cents a bunch.

Two years ago, her livelihood cost her shrapnel wounds that left scars on her leg, arms and neck.

Violence between Sunnis and Shiites once overwhelmed residents in Saab al Bor, which lies along the country’s major highway that runs west to Syria. By the spring of 2007, most of the town’s 40,000 residents had fled.

Three things happened to lure people back home last year: The U.S. military hired many of those causing the violence and made them members of the "Sons of Iraq." Those members in turn helped the military find some of the insurgents behind the continuing violence. And the U.S. dumped a load of money into the town.

The cash came from the Commanders Emergency Response Program, which began shortly after the March 2003 invasion as a way to help Iraqis clean and secure their neighborhoods — and buy some goodwill. U.S. commanders began referring to CERP as their "walking-around money" — an officer could walk through a town, see a problem, and within a few weeks put money toward fixing it. In Saab al Bor, the cash was used to create jobs, clean up rubble and make the local water drinkable.

Now, as the U.S. military presence in Iraq begins to steadily diminish, the CERP money will begin to recede as well.

"As troop numbers go down, the CERP money will go down. CERP is a commander’s program," said Lt. Col. Simon Gardner, whose office oversees CERP spending for Multi-National Division-Baghdad. To spend the funds, he said, "you have to have commanders."

The turnaround in Saab al Bor has become a case study of the effectiveness of the CERP program; it’s part of the curriculum at the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., officials say.

As of June, the town’s population had surged to about 50,000 people, with about 30 to 40 families moving back home each week. Violence is almost nil, according to Capt. Owen Adams, who commands Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment.

The troop moved into the town in February and was hit twice in March with roadside bombs and small-arms fire that caused no serious injuries, Adams said. Since then, things have been very quiet.

Yet the successes in Saab al Bor have brought other problems, said 1st Lt. Matt Swartzell of Troop B. CERP projects were meant to provide a temporary fix to problems until the Iraqi government could take over, but in many cases that takeover has yet to happen.

The town lacks enough trained garbage truck drivers to empty trash bins. Septic tanks have not been emptied in three years. The town has no 24-hour clinic and the ambulances that run will deliver patients to Baghdad but won’t pick them up at their homes.

Worst of all, the water is now polluted again and making people ill.

A couple of years ago, the U.S. military spent about $8 million in CERP money to treat the water in the larger area of Taji, which includes Saab al Bor, according to Maj. Guy Smith, also with the 2nd Squadron. The money put water treatment systems in place, but left no budget for operation and maintenance.

As time passed, saline in the water ate through the treatment system’s pipes. Local water authorities sold off chlorine treatment for the system on the black market, Smith and others said.

Smith and Adams are trying to work a second round of fixes, but under new rules put in place to improve the CERP program, they must have an agreement with the Iraqi Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works to take over the maintenance costs once repairs are made. In the meantime, Smith is working on getting approval to bring water trucks to the area.

In the Baghdad area, CERP has pushed more than $14 million in microgrants to merchants and farmers in the past nine months. In the same period, military units there committed $117 million toward larger projects ranging from securing Iraqi government buildings to irrigating fields to treating water to improving electrical service.

They now have another three months — until Sept. 30 — to commit another $151 million to improving infrastructure and businesses around the capital before the new U.S. budget cycle begins.

"We want to spend it to create effects smartly," said Gardner.

That hasn’t always been the case.

CERP has come under criticism by Iraqis for spending money without regard to local priorities. And there has been some corruption: In one extreme case, a U.S. Army captain was indicted earlier this year for taking $690,000 from the program, the Los Angeles Times reported in April.

First Lt. Young Ethridge, a Pennsylvania Army National Guardsman with the 2nd Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment, has taped that newspaper story next to his desk. Ethridge’s job is to review a project as it progresses and to facilitate final payments to contractors. As a trained project purchasing officer for the Army, he can be held liable for his decisions.

Now, officers like Ethridge can only work on 12 projects at a time, one of the new rules put in place to improve the program, officers said.

Another change involves obtaining endorsement from Iraqi officials for reconstruction projects, according to Lt. Col. Maria Zumwalt, whose job includes overseeing CERP for the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, in northeastern Baghdad and nearby suburbs.

Projects like hospital, school or utility renovations require a letter from an Iraqi official supporting the project. The letter also states the Iraqi agency will start upkeep and salary payments at the improved site after the military’s investment, Zumwalt said.


Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up