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1st Lt. Dan Kurtenbach, an officer assigned to 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, tours an industrial factory Wednesday near Iskandariyah, Iraq. For more photos, see the link at the top of the story.

1st Lt. Dan Kurtenbach, an officer assigned to 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, tours an industrial factory Wednesday near Iskandariyah, Iraq. For more photos, see the link at the top of the story. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

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ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq — U.S. troops are shifting more of their efforts toward nation building rather than conducting combat operations as the security situation improves in northern Babil province.

Infantry units, although most comfortable with, and best trained for, kinetic operations, are identifying ways to improve governance and economics.

Other units with the 172nd Infantry Brigade at Forward Operating Base Kalsu are providing security escorts for State Department members of provincial reconstruction teams. More units based at FOB Kalsu are training for such security escort missions.

On Wednesday, an infantry battalion commander sipped tea and chatted with the director of an Iraqi state-owned company that assembles tractors in Iskandariyah, another sign of this shift in the role of the U.S. military.

Sabah al Khafaji, the general director of the State Company of Mechanical Industries, guided Lt. Col. Steven Miska, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, and a few other officers on a tour of the facility. Underscoring the improved security environment and likely as a gesture of goodwill, Miska and the officers left their helmets and body armor in their vehicles but remained armed. However, several heavily armed soldiers in full “battle rattle” escorted the officers during the visit.

Miska, commander of Task Force 1-2 as the Schweinfurt, Germany-based battalion is known during its deployment, sought to learn more about what was going on economically in his area of operations. More specifically, Miska wanted to identify the types of jobs available for young military-aged males in the area and figure out ways to help Iraqis increase employment.

“We are not the primary people responsible for trying to push economic development, but it helps if we understand what’s going on — both from the Iraqi perspective and the provincial reconstruction team,” said Miska, who formerly taught economics at the U.S. Military Academy. “When I get to meet the Iraqis and talk to them one-on-one, they get to explain this is the way forward for them as far as their marketing, their manufacturing strategy, then it helps me understand where some of the opportunities are. You heard us talk about unemployment. Unemployment is a huge problem pretty much everywhere in Iraq.”

Job shortages

The root cause of a lot of the tension in the area is unemployment, Miska said. Large numbers of unemployed men could make tempting recruits for terrorist organizations or insurgents ready with cash. With the “Sons of Iraq” — a nationwide program that provides steady pay for nearly 100,000 males who serve as guards at roadside checkpoints — expected to dissolve sometime this year, job creation is a priority throughout the country.

The Iskandariyah Industrial Complex, which houses the State Company of Mechanical Industries and other factories, could provide thousands of needed jobs in the area. Prior to the U.S. military “surge” in 2007, the State Company of Mechanical Industries at the complex employed only 400 workers, according to an Army presentation. Today, about 6,000 people work there.

But some workers don’t bother showing up because they get paid by the government regardless, and Khafaji acknowledged that the company would be all right with 3,000 employees.

At one point, the industrial complex, which prior to the war housed a functioning weapons factory, employed about 30,000. Currently, almost 11,000 are employed at various factories throughout the complex.

When the men first sat down in Khafaji’s office, Miska asked what challenges Khafaji faced. The Iraqi replied that competition is a challenge because he needs to work with big companies to improve his technology. Khafaji then asked if American companies could either become investors in his company or share their technology. Khafaji mentioned the need for international investment and technology sharing, repeatedly.

Following the talk, Khafaji took the officers on a tour of the company’s factory. If not for Muslim workers kneeling and bowing on rugs during daily prayers, the factory wouldn’t have been out of place in the American Steel Belt — circa 1940.

Miska and Khafaji both expressed their willingness to cooperate to improve the economic situation.

But the vital question, which Miska raised even before speaking with Khafaji, remains how to harness the potential of the facility.

“There’s a lot of potential,” Miska said. “It’s just how you get it moving.”

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