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US exit strategy: Empower Iraqis

Officers are forging a new approach in the south, building trust with their Iraqi counterparts.

(Page 3 of 3)

In the impoverished south, a key incentive for Iraqi security and political leaders to keep Americans safe is the money the US military spends on infrastructure, which is needed to attract foreign oil firms and investors.

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After a drop in US willingness to fund Iraqi projects, the US officers have begun to turn on the taps again.

Lt. Col. Michael Eastman is overseeing $16 million spread over 260 projects under the Commander's Emergency Response Program – discretionary funds made available to US commanders in Iraq.

"We are helping this democratically elected government [of Iraq] ... meet some of the obligations it has to the people that they cannot [do] right now ... because of the budget shortfalls that they have encountered," says Eastman, a former West Point instructor from Lawton, Okla. "We are still working in an environment where if you can employ someone they're less likely to be paid to plant bombs."

Nasiriyah was notorious during the war as the site of one of the first major battles during the invasion of Iraq, when 11 US soldiers were killed after their supply convoy took a wrong turn. Six years later, it's one of the calmest places in Iraq. On a recent evening, the head of the PRT here, Anna Prouse, wandered through a teahouse wearing camouflage body armor with a silk flower tucked into it, chatting with residents.

Faced with the prospect of hundreds of Iraqi police being thrown off the force because they couldn't read, and with no Iraqi government program to deal with it, Ms. Prouse arranged for her interpreter to hold literacy classes.

"Sometimes we think we all need to spend huge amounts of money doing something that's quite easy," says Prouse, a former journalist and an Italian citizen. The PRT is a joint US-Italian venture. "We have a lin­guist, they have classrooms. Why do I have to spend a huge amount of money to bring someone from abroad to teach the alphabet?"

U.S. forces operate under the US-Iraqi security agreement, which now makes the US military very clearly guests rather than occupiers. In some cases, it's still a tenuous relationship. Among Newell's recent hiccups was the rumor in Maysan's provincial capital, Amarah, that the US military was dropping pigs (taboo under Islam) into the city to spread swine flu. Iraqi officials soon sorted it out.

Now, after the June 30 agreement, there are actually more US soldiers living in cities than before in the three provinces Newell oversees. They're there to advise and train their Iraqi counterparts.

Now their focus is responding to what the Iraqis say they need to learn, not what US commanders say they need. That's al­tered everything, from the kind of training Iraqis receive to the selection of intelligence targets – now they're the ones Iraqis choose, not US-chosen ones.

"All of these classes, all these things didn't come from coalition forces – we asked for them," says Maysan's provincial police chief, Maj. Gen. Saad al-Harbia, sitting in his office late into the evening with his American counterparts. "I consider this the first true relationship between us because it is based on something real instead of raids and firing at people in the street." [Editor's note: The province where Maj. Gen. Saad al-Harbia works was misidentified.]


[Editor's note: The original caption misidentified Ms. Prouse's employer.]


Got whiskers? Iraqis notice when Americans go native.