US drains Iraqi swamp - of sewage

In a bid to improve health and goodwill, US engineers are spending $500 million on Baghdad's infrastructure.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On his regular rounds, Capt. Mark Distefano isn't looking for insurgents or explosive devices. Instead, he's searching for evidence that one of the biggest killers in Sadr City, the poorest of Baghdad's neighborhoods, is being tamed: raw sewage.

At the height of Baghdad's summer, with temperatures topping 120 degrees, diseases like typhoid and hepatitis rampage through the water supply. The 1st Cavalry Division's 20th Engineer Battalion is pouring money into Sadr City, a stronghold for the anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, in an effort to improve health and win hearts and minds.

Their work has been put on hold during the recent fighting between Sadr's men and US forces. But even before the return to open hostilities, the American effort in Sadr City reaped limited goodwill as the Mahdi Army claimed much of the credit for it. Spending on projects was ramped up in June, but some say the failure to spend more money with greater speed in Sadr City has contributed to the unrest there.

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"As late as May, we were coming in to do recon work and we were getting shot at, which was the most ironic thing to me,'' says Captain Distefano, a Louisiana native and graduate of West Point. "Here we are trying to help and we're taking fire. But we know this is work that will help the people here, whether we get credit for it or not."

The need for the work is clear. Sadr City doctors say the rate of waterborne infections is the worst in years, caused by damage to the already devastated local infrastructure in last year's invasion and an intermittent power supply that leaves sewage and water pumps idle for much of the day. Low pressure in rusted and damaged pipes, which pass through ground saturated with sewage, contaminates the water supply to such an extent that in some neighborhoods locals hold their noses to drink the tap water.

"We're overwhelmed with cases,'' says Kassim Abdul Khanja, who runs the Zarha Health Clinic for the poor in Sadr City. "Waterborne diseases are endemic here - it's always a summertime problem. But this year it's much, much worse."

Dr. Kassim says he treated 300 typhoid patients in July alone. "This is less a medical problem and more one of public health - with better infrastructure, these diseases would be gone."

That's where the engineers come in.

Kick around Sadr City for a few hours, and the problem seems hopeless. The public housing quarter built in the 1950s to house about 500,000 people now holds five times that many, and its services haven't been updated since.

Flocks of goats and sheep forage on rotting garbage piles in medians and gutters, as pedestrians nimbly detour the frequent pools of fetid water.

Yet on this arrow-straight stretch of road on Sadr City's outskirts, signs of progress are everywhere. The median has just been cleaned by a gang of laborers, paid $5 a day by the US - an above-average wage - in a dual effort to deal with the area's sanitation problems and to get money pumping to the poorest families in a district that has about 50 percent unemployment.

Nearby, a small team of Iraqis are running a pump to drain some of the sewage from the roadside, and Distefano is checking on the progress.

But when he approaches the foreman, who's employed as part of a crash program by the 1st Cavalry Division to spend about $500 million on Baghdad's infrastructure and basic sanitation between now and October, the man doesn't seem happy to see him. His forearms coated with muck and grease, the man says he wants the soldiers out. "The Mahdi Army is paying for this, this is our city,'' he says. "We should be left to take care of our own problems."

Distefano ignores the claim that Sadr's Mahdi Army, not the US, is paying for the work, and asks a few questions. But the foreman isn't very cooperative, and Distefano's men begin to grow nervous as a crowd gathers.

"Captain, this guy here is staring me down,'' says one, almost toe to toe with a hostile young man. "I know, just ignore him,'' Distefano replies, who looks around and adds, "we're going to get mobbed by kids,'' before ordering everyone to mount up and move on.

Doing the right thing in Iraq these days isn't easy, and it seems unlikely to win the US military much credit from alienated populations like the people in Sadr City. A Shiite district, it was systematically deprived of basic services under Hussein's Sunni regime, breeding a surly attitude toward outsiders.

"If you were to overlay a map of where we've had the most enemy contact on one where the services are the worst, they'd match,'' says Lt. Col. Barrett Holmes, the 20th's commander. "There are many people who are frustrated that more progress hasn't been made, but a lot's starting to happen now."

Indeed, the engineers in concert with USAID and other US funding sources now have about 10,000 people working on sewage and water projects inside Sadr City. The work isn't going as quickly as it might, since the 1st Cavalry has made job creation one of its goals. Colonel Holmes spends much of his time ensuring that local contractors employ digging crews, rather than machines, for portions of their work.

They are also clearing blockages in the city's main sewage lines, and upgrading water-purification and pumping capacity. The engineers have more than $125 million in sewage and water projects that have just begun, or are scheduled to start soon, for Sadr City alone.

The work didn't come soon enough for Amel Khadim, a laborer who died of typhoid in late July.

Here in sector 74, the stench of human waste and garbage is enough to make the eyes water. Most residents now pay for water to be trucked in. However, the side street where the long, narrow tent has been erected for Mr. Khadim's funeral was ankle deep in sewage until a few days earlier, when it was drained by a mobile pump team, almost certainly one arranged for by the US military. But no one here seems to know it.

"The Mahdi Army are the ones who drained the sewage," says Bassim Nasser. "They're the only ones who help us."

Distefano says he tries not to get frustrated. "We're not here for the credit. We're here to get things done."

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