The view from the Mercy Corps compound in this southern city is probably the most bucolic of any foreign organization's in Iraq. Just beyond a low cement wall, a herd of water buffalo noses along the riverbank and a fisherman pushes a punt through the reeds.
Tribal sheikhs seeking help and businessmen hoping for contracts parade through the aid group's office, untroubled by armed guards or pat-downs for weapons. In a war in which civilians are frequent targets, typified by the November suicide bombing of the Red Cross, it's an almost shocking scene.
Hundreds of foreign-aid workers have fled Iraq, and organizations like the Red Cross have dramatically curtailed their activities. This week in New York, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari appealed to the UN - which pulled its international staff out in October after a series of attacks on humanitarian groups - to return quickly to Iraq, but received no promises.
Mercy Corps, based in Portland, Ore., is one of a handful of foreign groups that have maintained a relatively large footprint in Iraq by pursuing an "acceptance strategy" that, it calculates, offers better protection than highly visible guards and barriers.
The approach, used by the Red Cross until the Baghdad attack that killed 12, relies on constant consultations with local communities, hoping that their support for aid projects will produce the intelligence needed to keep workers safe. "It's a high-risk strategy, but we believe it's less risky," says Mercy Corps country head David Holdridge. "The coalition lives behind high walls, but mortars hit them all the time."
He argues that armed guards provide only "illusory protection." "We have a policy of nondeterrence," Mr. Holdridge says, "and relying on good relations with local leaders and notables."
A Vietnam War veteran who has served as an aid worker in Sarejevo, Beirut, and Sierra Leone, Holdridge says he has no illusions about the dangers in Iraq, but says the alternative - hunkering down behind layers of security - severely limits the good that can be done in a nation desperate for help.
Indeed, one of the intentions of the attacks on aid workers and civilians is to force them into protective shells and to curtail their effectiveness, something that has happened. Most CPA officials have limited contact with average Iraqis, shackled as they are by security concerns. Some quietly say they'd like to start moving about more. "Everywhere, our people are living in bunkers," says Holdridge. "If we're not going to take any risks, what are we really here for?"
In November, Holdridge made the difficult decision to leave his riverside location. The Research Triangle Institute, a major contractor to the CPA, began moving in next door with a complement of razor wire and guards. "I hope God watches over all of them, but as an institution we have little choice. Part of our acceptance strategy is to disassociate ourselves from US foreign policy."
Around Al Kut, the need is clear. The mostly Shiite region was starved of assistance under Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. Infrastructure has decayed, and under the sanctions in the 1990s, infant and maternal mortality surged.
About half of Mercy Corps' work in Iraq is focused on cooperating with nascent democratic processes on the village level to identify what people want, and then working with them on projects ranging from irrigation to road building.
Sayyid Shatti, one of hundreds of poor villages along the banks of the Tigris, is a model for the approach. About 100 families, mostly farmers, live here in mud-and-wattle homes.
Sheikh Sayyid Ridha, who's working closely with the aid agency, says the first time he was ever approached and asked about village needs was after Hussein's fall. "We were being crushed. Our school hadn't been repaired since it was built in 1959, our water system is from the early 1970s. We don't have a proper road."
Despite living on the river, water has always been a problem. The government only allowed farmers to draw water three days a week. "They said this was for conservation, but that was lie. It was to keep Shiites like us under control."
Sheikh Ridha led a committee that set priorities with Mercy Corp. Topping their list was a paved road leading to the highway that links up with Al Kut. Materials and heavy machines have been brought in, but work is stalled by the rainy season. Elsewhere in the village, work has begun on the dilapidated school. Even so, relations between foreigners and residents are bumpy.
"America is a superpower. They could be doing a lot more to make our lives better," says Abbas Kadim Bachai, a plump father of five who pops out of his mud home to complain. "The roads and ... the school are nothing; I want a job."
He and others complain that the US wants to colonize Iraq, and that it's hard to trust aid groups. Another man disagrees, saying some work is being done, but Bachai dismisses him with an angry wave before going back inside.
Holdridge says security can't be guaranteed. "This is the most ambiguous security situation I've ever seen. The only thing that comes close is Beirut in '80, '81. If someone gets hurt, I'll probably never get a job like this again. But we have a job to do, and we've decided not to adopt a self-defeating strategy."