Iraqi fears, U.S. ways trap village

Recovery: Farmers, townsfolk and Americans who run their lives want to repair war damage, but bureaucracies and misunderstandings obstruct them.

October 16, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SALMAN PAK, Iraq - The new village council was about to meet, as it does now every Friday since elections were held last month under the watchful eyes and gentle prodding of the Americans, but the chairman's call for order brought no such thing.

First came a loud argument over whether gasoline should be rationed, which became so heated that one council member got up from one of the chairs that ring the room, bolted outside and slammed the door behind him.

Next, a disagreement over whether to return land confiscated by Saddam Hussein's regime ended only when two of the 21 council members vowed at the top of their lungs never to speak to each other again.

And when those disputes calmed, a heavyset council member, red-faced with anger, shot to his feet and yelled so much about the uselessness of his colleagues that he may have raised the temperature in the room by several degrees.

When he lunged at his nemesis on the council, a full-fledged brawl was avoided only because other members jumped from their white plastic chairs and separated the two.

"We have to get to work," said the council chairman, Basil Abbas, a schoolteacher, restoring order briefly by slamming the palm of his hand onto the desk in front of him. "We have to work together to get things done. We have a lot of problems to solve, and we're just getting started."

Virtually all the village's 7,000 households know the problems. The high school has gained windows to replace those shattered in the war, but the bombed roof still needs repair. Curbs are freshly painted, but the roads they border still are pocked from bombs. Farmers whose land was confiscated and rented out by the old government want it back, but others long ago claimed it as their own.

The hospital has no incubators for newborns. Village bureaucrats are at a loss about whether to collect taxes - and how. The tribal elders, the men who seem to know everyone in town and have long settled disputes among its residents, are irked that American officials haven't consulted them about reconstruction plans, and the Americans seem oblivious to the elders' status. And Ibrahim Daly, the heavyset man on the council, has had enough of it all and is threatening to resign.

While the world's powers debate the future of Iraq - about the writing of its constitution, about turning over power to Iraqis, about how much money will be needed and who will foot the bill - villages such as Salman Pak have begun to rebuild, and the future is looking complicated.

In theory, this council will figure things out, set priorities, list what to fix first and how to go about it; but in fact, it can do almost nothing without the approval of the Americans.

Agreement on almost anything is hard to come by in a country used to an iron hand from Baghdad, but there is consensus here on one point: Rebuilding this shattered place will be a dauntingly complicated undertaking even if the tens of billions of dollars needed for a new infrastructure becomes available.

And rebuilding Iraq will not be one huge job; it will be a billion smaller tasks, each wrapped in its own complexities.

Village council's role

This village, in many ways, is better off than it was a few months ago. More people have electricity than in May, but fewer than in March, before the war. Schools have reopened, but many remain damaged from the fighting and the looting that followed. Food is being distributed, but there are shortages of kerosene, used for cooking. The streets are not safe for anybody.

The limited progress is not from a lack of effort by the United States, though the lack of planning seems obvious. U.S. soldiers, members of the 4th Infantry Division, mostly men in their 20s, are working to set things right. Most residents see them only once or twice a day, patrolling their streets, guns pointed in every direction.

The soldiers' duties mostly involve helping to rebuild Salman Pak. Among their assignments: Repair the schools, restore electricity, get the telephones working, equip the hospital, import gasoline and kerosene, house the homeless, feed the poor, repair the bombed roads, find people jobs, coordinate elections, review contracts, form a police force and provide security in the interim even as they are being attacked with bullets and roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

That their responsibilities include all of these would be difficult enough. But they are to fix Salman Pak using the village council, most of whose 21 members are unknown to many residents because during the decades under Hussein, there were no real politicians in town. And the soldiers have arrived with no knowledge of the tribal elders who hold sway in this village, no training in working with aid agencies and only vague information, at best, to identify who intends to help them and who wants to thwart their every move. The soldiers do not know the language of the people they are directing.

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