BAGHDAD — On the streets of Sadr City where a year ago locals battled US troops, Lt. Col. Jamie Gayton is today a welcome man.
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."
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.
Now Gayton says about a third (in dollar terms) of the $300 million in infrastructure improvements planned for Sadr City has been completed, with another big chunk slated for completion by next summer. And perhaps more important for US plans to gradually turn the helm of reconstruction over to the Iraqis, the US military role has moved to the background as local Iraqi officials and non-American contractors step in.
"We serve as the third set of eyes, after the local leaders and the contractors actually doing the construction," he says.
Another important element, from Gayton's perspective, is his insistence that all projects pass through a website for bidding. That has made corruption that plagues other rebuilding projects "not even a factor in our area," Gayton insists. And that, in turn, has meant that more work is getting done. "Instead of the 30 projects we planned, we've been able to stretch the money for 41 projects."
Yet from his personal point of view, Gayton says the most important part of his work is still the contact with the people who live in the neighborhoods and are benefiting from the projects.
Of course it's hard to argue with a convoy of humvees moving through the neighborhood. Indeed, when Gayton responds to one Sadr resident that he feels "very comfortable" chatting with him on his turf, the man says, "Then why do you feel the need to come with all these vehicles and weapons?"
The appraisals that Sadr residents give the reconstruction effort don't seem to change much when the soldiers aren't around. There's acknowledgement of some improvements - and plenty of complaints about what hasn't been done.
"There are a few projects going on, but nothing that really changes the way we live and nothing at all on the northern edge of Sadr City," says Kahtan al-Saadi, who rents out plastic chairs, tea sets, and platters for weddings and funerals from his store.
Like Iraqis everywhere, his big complaint is the lack of electricity nearly three years after the war. But he doesn't blame that on the Americans. "We shouldn't forget that the Americans got rid of Saddam, but after that I don't see much that they've done, except maybe employ the kids to pick up trash," he says. "They do what they do and we don't interfere."
Others say opinions on how Sadr City's reconstruction and improvement have gone are divided according to politics.
"Not everybody here supports Moqtada, believe me," says Karal Saif al-Daradgi, who sells space heaters and other small appliances from a tidy storefront. "Those who do oppose the Americans being here will say nothing good has happened. But others of us are followers of the true Shiite religious leaders, and we have two words for how things are since Moqtada stopped fighting the Americans and let them start working here: It's better."
Perhaps the biggest test of reconstruction success will come not from tabulations of projects but from what happens to the good-governance ideals when Americans leave. Gayton gets a sense of the difficulties in changing long-held habits as he tours the eastern edge of Sadr City where sewer pipes are being laid.
Yes, yes, the sewer project is good, says a man from the neighborhood council. "But what about our neighborhood patrols to stop the thieves who come to steal our cars?" the man asks. "If the police or the Americans come, they take our guns."
Gayton explains that the neighborhood has to start to rely on the official security forces. Personal weapons outside the home, he says, won't be tolerated. "We can't allow them to depend on local groups or militias."
But the councilman continues, pointing out that the police take four hours to arrive if called. Other men smile and chuckle at their neighborhood representative, and no one seems to think the armed patrols will stop once the Americans leave.