Soldiers question Iraq’s ability to sustain its progress
February 12, 2009
JASSAN, Iraq — The Romanian engineer stood beside the chalkboard, surveyed the empty classroom and its mostly bare concrete walls, and, for once, nodded his approval.
"It’s clean. This is good," said Col. Nistor Valentin, one of about a dozen coalition troops touring a girls’ primary school on a recent morning in rural Wasit province.
The group walked across the dirt-and-rock courtyard, where sons of the caretaker and the principal kicked the torn shell of a soccer ball to each other. The soldiers peered in the dingy, squalid bathrooms with squat toilets — one with no water, and one threatening to overflow from too much running water.
"All the schools in Iraq are the same — the same problems," said Valentin, who hoped to identify possible repair projects at the school.
Those projects would be coalition-guided, with Iraqi companies providing the labor, and coalition or Iraqi funds paying for it.
"They have this mentality that, ‘The government should provide us everything because we are a rich country,’ " Valentin said. "Our idea is to teach them how to do it."
Soldiers say the long U.S. military presence in Iraq has created a dependency, with the Iraqis relying on the Americans to patch up, pay for and solve their problems.
But with U.S. forces planning their exit from Iraq, soldiers in rural Wasit province are looking for sustainable projects such as the one at this school that can help the Iraqis in the long-term, or better yet, teach them to fix it themselves.
Iraq’s widespread poverty and a culture that places little emphasis on cleanliness and taking care of property have many Americans wondering if they can leave a mark here after they leave. First Lt. Michael Franson, executive officer at a joint security station near the school, said the Americans are frustrated at what they see as a reluctance among Iraqis to take care of the country’s problems. They want to help the Iraqis, but say the country needs to become more self-sufficient.
"We can put a Band-Aid over it, and give them bottles of water for this week, but what about next week?" said Franson, who is with Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 20th Field Artillery Regiment.
Wasit province has been relatively violence-free since last March, and much of the unit’s focus has been on rebuilding the area, not battling insurgents.
Aside from training and conducting joint patrols with Iraqi security forces, the unit has worked with the local governments and citizens — organizing repair projects at schools, giving out water purification systems to families, and giving out bags with rice and other basic foods. On this trip, the soldiers carried boxes of candy, soccer balls and book bags to give to the students.
No Iraqis in the area, however, have applied for coalition forces’ $5,000 microgrants to help them start a small business, like a phone or fruit stand.
"They’re somewhat reluctant to ask for help. I think it’s because of insurgents," said Staff Sgt. Alvin Carter, civil affairs operations sergeant.
If a family has a sudden influx of cash or merchandise from coalition forces, militias might target them because of their ties to the Americans, he said.
"We can build them a really nice school, but if they can’t maintain it ..." he said. "The mark I want to leave is the farmer that has the tools, the veterinarian who has some medicines."
If he left Iraq today, Franson said he would feel good about the work his unit has done, but not satisfied with the country’s future.
"I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them as a country to sustain [themselves]," Franson said.