BAGHDAD, IRAQ — After decades of sanctions and six years of conflict, the sprawling neighborhoods of Iraq’s largest city are understandably in poor shape.
But as security improves, Iraq’s densely-packed urban areas are coming back to life. With them have come the retail businesses that were all but given up for lost in the post-2003 invasion cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency.
With the return of street commerce, the role of the U.S. military in Iraq has changed a lot too, and a small unit from the Central Coast is at the forefront of a new approach to the Iraq problem.
Increasingly, these troops are putting traditional policing roles such as tracking down insurgents, behind them. While security is still a primary concern, a less violent situation on the streets has allowed a greater number of troops to work, as one soldier put it, “as armed social workers.”
This is where civil affairs units such as the Santa Barbara-based US Army 425th Civil Affairs Battalion come into play. The 425th oversees a number of reconstruction projects around Baghdad — Iraq’s largest and most densely populated city.
One such program that has been producing visible results is the series of microgrants being disbursed to businesses in Ghazalia, a Baghdad neighborhood that was a hotbed of sectarian violence until very recently.
Having arrived in Iraq in October, the unit’s soldiers have had some time to become familiar with the program’s details, the people and the problems in need of solving.
Increased oversight of cash disbursements and tighter control over grant approvals has led to less waste. “The way we’re doing it now, it’s having positive effects,” said Lt. Col. Tom Downey, the leader of Civil Affairs Team One. “Before, when we were just giving people a straight check, money wasn’t used for its intended purpose in a lot of cases.”
He said it was conceivable that the money could have been used to fund insurgent activities, but that a lot of people were simply pocketing the money, rather than using it to hire staff, add to inventory or expand their enterprises.
Things are a bit different now. Only half of each grant — which can be up to $2,500 — is paid up front, and is only given after a thorough application process where each applicant is interviewed by civil affairs soldiers and put through a background check.
Business plans aren’t required, but interested entrepreneurs must describe their business — what goods or services they provide, where it is located and what competition exists.
They also must describe where and what they are willing to contribute in terms of labor and capital to execute the improvements. They must give three character references and submit to regular site visits to provide a preliminary evaluation of the establishment as well as ongoing checkups on progress.
Not everyone gets the grants these days. Sometimes a business won’t qualify because it isn’t legal or because character references provide information that indicates a lack of reliability.
Currently, 35 Ghazalian businesses are participating in the program, with another 200 or so going through the application process.
Lt. Col. Downey said the positive impacts are far-reaching. “Everyone here does business locally, so when a store owner wants to get a metal awning, he’s going to contact the metal worker around the corner,” he said. “Building materials are all bought locally, so the money goes into the community. Also, the business looks better, so the business owner gets more customers and can expand.”
The Civil Affairs teams make regular visits to businesses in Ghazalia to check on the progress of owners who have received grant money. If things seem to be coming along, the rest of the cash is disbursed. If not, they don’t get the money.
The teams are all too mindful of well-documented reports of theft and corruption by contractors and U.S. military officers involved in the $125 billion rebuilding process in Iraq, including a number of big-ticket projects that simply have not panned out.
Lessons learned from trying to reach too far too fast in the post-invasion environment of 2003 may be one reason why the Army is now zeroing in on small, quantifiable individual projects. Each microgrant has a limited amount of risk for the teams, but when clustered together to help manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, they can provide the means for a neighborhood economic revival.
The result has been a higher degree of cooperation among businesses in a given neighborhood. Still, security — getting local residents to stop aiding the insurgency — is the name of the game.
“Basically, the microgrant program increases the civil capacity of the coalition forces and makes it less likely for people to cooperate with the bad guys,” said Capt. Shawn Tobin, the leader of the Civil Affairs group’s Team Twos.
Even so, going out into the town is not taken lightly, and is treated like any other patrol the Army would conduct.
All team members carry loaded rifles and pistols and are kept fairly close together. In case anything goes wrong, the soldiers maintain a perimeter.
Just a few months ago, a couple of soldiers lost limbs when insurgents attacked an Army convoy in Ghazalia using RKG-3 anti-tank grenades. One of the injured soldiers had just two days left before getting shipped home.
Fortunately, those attacks have been waning. As violence has cleared up, commerce has taken its place.
• Freelance writer Ben Preston has been embedded with the 425th Battalion since early this year.
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