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Racket of rebuilding fills Sadr City as gunfire quiets

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 2005


On the streets of Sadr City where a year ago locals battled US troops, Lt. Col. Jamie Gayton is today a welcome man.

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It's not so much that the residents of the sprawling slum, home to more than 1 million mostly poor Shiite Iraqis, have suddenly lost their wariness and suspicions of the American presence. But Colonel Gayton is the man with the money that is being used to slowly bury the open sewers, bring clean water to homes, and illuminate dark streets with new lights.

And because of that, Gayton, a ceaselessly smiling commander of the Army brigade responsible for reconstruction on Baghdad's east side, hears more cheers than jeers as he makes the rounds of completed or progressing projects.

"This is an area that was neglected by the former regime for 30 years, so the people are very grateful for what we are doing," says Gayton. "But at the same time, once they get a taste of some improvement, they can also get a little anxious for more progress or for things to go a little faster."

That description makes Sadr City something of a metaphor for America's reconstruction effort in Iraq. Nearly three years after Saddam Hussein's ouster, and with much of an estimated $21 billion in US reconstruction money spent, improvements are starting to bloom.

But progress has been slow. And now that tangible results are finally beginning to show, many Iraqis are reacting to their own grandiose expectations. Many wonder why all the time, money, and effort have not yet made their living conditions exponentially better.

"Yes, I now have water in the house, but the truth is that it's not always working, and when it does the pressure is not always that good," says Raheem Chaloub, a Sadr City resident who now has clean water in his kitchen thanks to a $20 million water project. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) project has laid new pipes that deliver clean water directly to 180,000 homes.

Gayton asks him through a translator to compare water before the project to the way it tastes now. When Chaloub admits it used to taste "nasty" and now tastes good, Gayton tells him that is progress.

He says the US reconstruction objective is not so much to provide Iraqis with all the services they need as it is to show progress. That way, Iraqis will have faith in their new system and can begin to understand how involvement in democratic governance not only benefits them but makes for a better, cleaner government, says Gayton, a Floridian with twin baby boys at home. "We can't do everything in three or even five years, but we can get things rolling until a strong local government can take it all over."

Calm allows work to proceed

Sadr City has been high on the list of US reconstruction priorities since the beginning of the war. But the path has been about as smooth as this grid-like sector's trash-strewn thoroughfares.

Within months of Mr. Hussein's fall, plans were launched to fix inadequate and clogged sewers, improve other services, and develop a system of local government that residents would recognize as part of their new democracy. But the plan relied heavily on the US military, even as many Iraqis, in particular poor Shiites like those living in Sadr City, turned increasingly against the US occupation.

Instead of refurbishing Sadr City, the US found itself over the first two years battling it - especially the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

Mr. Sadr, whose revered father gave his name to the district, is perhaps Iraq's most outspoken opponent of the occupation. Not everyone in Sadr City follows Sadr, but his ability to call on legions of young men here who profess their readiness to die for him complicated US reconstruction plans.

As recently as a year ago, battles between the US and Mahdi forces were common in Sadr City's nocturnal life. But since then a kind of truce has held, as Sadr shifted his position to favoring the calm that would allow work to proceed.