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US civilians drive Iraq's other surge

Teams of US experts in law and management are trying to develop governance by the rule of law in northern Iraq.

By Staff writer / June 12, 2007

Kirkuk, Iraq

When a new courthouse was recently dedicated in the mostly Kurdish town of Dibbis in northern Iraq, the fanfare focused on the judges and other public servants who will use the building, as well as on the US military, which paid for the project.

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"Judges had no independence under the rule of [Saddam Hussein]," said Chief Judge Ahmed Thaker. "This building will be a symbol of the rule of law – the first step in rebuilding Iraq."

Less heralded were the US civilian experts who offered guidance on human rights and rule of law – even as they kept tabs on the budget and construction.

Those experts are part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) trying to develop a governance here that is guided by law and operates with efficiency, fairness, and a sense of service.

It's a tall order, especially as the national government is criticized for inertia and corruption. Yet the US is putting considerable money and faith in the idea that governance experts working with local officials can move Iraq forward.

As President Bush announced in January, the number of PRTs in Iraq is doubling this year from 10 to 20. David Satterfield, the State Department's lead man on Iraq, calls this a "civilian surge." It is accompanying a military surge that is just about to reach its peak.

"Something like learning to write and account for a budget doesn't sound all that glamorous, but it's just one example of the kinds of things these teams are doing that will serve Iraqis for a long time to come," says Jared Kennish, the senior military adviser to the Office of Provincial Affairs in the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The numbers involved in this civilian "surge" pale next to the extra 28,000 soldiers focused in Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. Something like 250 extra experts are either already on the ground or expected over the course of the year.

But with specialities like economics, agronomy, communications, and rule of law, they are what many people, including military leaders, point to when they say the Iraq effort requires more than military boots on the ground.

Underscoring how the civilian surge is intertwined with the military buildup is the fact that the 10 new teams will be "embedded" PRTs – initially teams of four experts, gradually expanded to a dozen or so, who are setting up operations with new military outposts, primarily in Baghdad.

A further illustration is the initial reliance on Army reservists to take the bulk of the new PRT positions. The State Department, at first, had trouble coaxing civilians to take the posts. That led to frictions with the Pentagon, which felt it could ill afford the assignment of reservists.

But officials insist that a full complement of civilians is now on board. Mr. Satterfield says both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are anxious to debunk the "myth" that State Department employees have shunned the jobs.

Nonetheless, fresh criticism is building from foreign-service experts, who say that the expansion of Iraq and Afghanistan assignments is burdening US civilian foreign operations in much the same way the wars are stretching military operations thin. The Foreign Affairs Council concluded in a report last week that the State Department's Iraq focus has left it in a "crisis," with hundreds of unfilled positions elsewhere in the world.

The concept behind the PRTs, especially the new embedded variety, is to get civilians as well as soldiers out among the Iraqi people – and to support progress in local governance. "The less military a face the teams have, the more it starts to seem like normal government, which is civilian," says Col. Chris Brady, the Kirkuk PRT's military-civilian liaison.