The GI's weapon of choice in Iraq: dollars
Congress recently allocated $180 million for aid to be disbursed directly by US soldiers.
In November, the deadliest month for US soldiers in the occupation of Iraq, angry and sometimes desperate calls began streaming back to the US from commanders, complaining that the government wasn't giving them what they needed to battle an intensifying insurgency.Skip to next paragraph
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But the front-line soldiers weren't calling out for more ammunition, armor-plated Humvees, or night-vision goggles. Instead what they wanted was a little money, enough to restart the Commander's Emergency Response Program, or CERP, a decentralized aid program started shortly after the US occupation began.
The grants, ranging from as little as $1,000 up to $30,000, were designed to get money flowing back into the economy fast. Potholes were filled, schools refurbished, and irrigation canals - choked off by weeds and silt for decades - restored in 12,000 projects across the country.
The project started with found money, the bundles of $50 and $100 bills that advance units found in Saddam Hussein's palaces as they rumbled into the country last spring, but was quickly expanded when front-line soldiers began reporting back that it looked like their best weapon in combating the insurgency. Between May and the end of October, about $80 million was spent.
But then the money ran out in the middle of October, and the casualties began to mount. There were both funding problems, and also concerns within the centralized Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad that it didn't have enough oversight of the program.
In November, when little CERP money was available, the coalition casualty count soared to 81 dead from 42 in October and 31 September. In December, after the funding tap was turned back on by congress, which allocated up to $180 million for the program in its 2004 supplemental spending bill, about 40 US soldiers were killed.
"You talk about good will - we could go into a village and fix a well that hadn't worked in 15 years and all of the sudden you've got old women with tears in their eyes and people chanting "President Bush,'' looking like the most staged thing you ever saw in your life,'' says Maj. R.J. Lilli bridge, of the 101st Airborne Division near the northern city of Talafar. "The CERP funds have been a major tool for us."
The military's experience with the program has been part of its steep learning curve in the hottest counterinsurgency effort it's participated in since fighting the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam. There, too, there were development efforts to win hearts and minds that failed, showing that cash alone is no guarantor of success when nationalist passions are inflamed.
And although soldiers across Iraq express the suspicion that the pause in CERP spending and the rise in attacks on US soldiers are related, senior commanders and analysts say a correlation is far from proven and that there are other factors behind both the surge in deaths in November and the subsequent decline.
They point out that a few catastrophic attacks, including a missile strike on a Blackhawk helicopter that killed 16, made up the lion's share of casualties, and that improvements in intelligence gathering that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein and others have played a crucial role in reducing the intensity of the insurgency.
"Commanders who need this money can point to casualty levels but I think that's pushing the envelope,'' says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Still, Mr. Cordesman believes that decentralized funding programs like CERP are crucial to pacifying the country and making the best start possible towards making Iraq a stable place.