The GI's weapon of choice in Iraq: dollars

Congress recently allocated $180 million for aid to be disbursed directly by US soldiers.

In November, the deadliest month for US soldiers in the occupation of Iraq, angry and sometimes desperate calls began streaming back to the US from commanders, complaining that the government wasn't giving them what they needed to battle an intensifying insurgency.

But the front-line soldiers weren't calling out for more ammunition, armor-plated Humvees, or night-vision goggles. Instead what they wanted was a little money, enough to restart the Commander's Emergency Response Program, or CERP, a decentralized aid program started shortly after the US occupation began.

The grants, ranging from as little as $1,000 up to $30,000, were designed to get money flowing back into the economy fast. Potholes were filled, schools refurbished, and irrigation canals - choked off by weeds and silt for decades - restored in 12,000 projects across the country.

The project started with found money, the bundles of $50 and $100 bills that advance units found in Saddam Hussein's palaces as they rumbled into the country last spring, but was quickly expanded when front-line soldiers began reporting back that it looked like their best weapon in combating the insurgency. Between May and the end of October, about $80 million was spent.

The hardest month

But then the money ran out in the middle of October, and the casualties began to mount. There were both funding problems, and also concerns within the centralized Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad that it didn't have enough oversight of the program.

In November, when little CERP money was available, the coalition casualty count soared to 81 dead from 42 in October and 31 September. In December, after the funding tap was turned back on by congress, which allocated up to $180 million for the program in its 2004 supplemental spending bill, about 40 US soldiers were killed.

"You talk about good will - we could go into a village and fix a well that hadn't worked in 15 years and all of the sudden you've got old women with tears in their eyes and people chanting "President Bush,'' looking like the most staged thing you ever saw in your life,'' says Maj. R.J. Lilli bridge, of the 101st Airborne Division near the northern city of Talafar. "The CERP funds have been a major tool for us."

'Hearts and minds'

The military's experience with the program has been part of its steep learning curve in the hottest counterinsurgency effort it's participated in since fighting the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam. There, too, there were development efforts to win hearts and minds that failed, showing that cash alone is no guarantor of success when nationalist passions are inflamed.

And although soldiers across Iraq express the suspicion that the pause in CERP spending and the rise in attacks on US soldiers are related, senior commanders and analysts say a correlation is far from proven and that there are other factors behind both the surge in deaths in November and the subsequent decline.

They point out that a few catastrophic attacks, including a missile strike on a Blackhawk helicopter that killed 16, made up the lion's share of casualties, and that improvements in intelligence gathering that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein and others have played a crucial role in reducing the intensity of the insurgency.

"Commanders who need this money can point to casualty levels but I think that's pushing the envelope,'' says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Still, Mr. Cordesman believes that decentralized funding programs like CERP are crucial to pacifying the country and making the best start possible towards making Iraq a stable place.

"[The fact] that the ability of commanders to directly support the economic side to counterinsurgency is important is clear," he says. "Regardless of where you go in Iraq, it's the military that keeps stressing dollars over bullets. On the ground, you come to understand very well that aid is as important as attack helicopters or Stryker armored vehicles."

In Samara, in central Iraq, Stryker brigade soldiers arrived Dec. 17 braced for a fight. But according to a report in the Seattle Times, they found many residents were friendly. The soldiers often paid cash - $20 to more than $40 - to residents whose homes were searched and found to be clean of weapons.

Rather than the slow-moving construction work of contractors like Bechtel, or the paperwork-heavy funding procedures of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the CERP program was made to get money into Iraqi pockets fast, and yield tangible improvements that Iraqi communities could identify.

Cordesman says the military aid has filled a crucial gap in Iraq left by what he considers to be the "overly ideological" approach of US civilian planners, who came to Iraq with grand visions of turning Iraq into a Western-style democracy, with an economy to match, overnight.

Fast money

The CPA, run by Paul Bremer, has been too slow to get money flowing to feel-good projects that yield quick results, and has been too focused on sweeping plans to privatize the oil industry and restructure the economy that most Iraqis view with hostility and suspicion.

"It would certainly be useful to give the military more CERP funds,'' he says. "We are going to be judged by Iraqis on how much money gets to people who need it right now, not on efforts to reform all of its agriculture."

To the soldier on the ground, the most useful side to the money is that it has at least made some friends in communities who have profited from their projects, turning them into useful informants against insurgents operating in their areas and setting up what they hope will be a virtuous cycle of development leading to peace and then leading to more development.

"For those two months that the CERP funds went down, you could graph our spending against daily attacks against us and see the one going up as the other went down,'' says a major in central Iraq, who asked that his name not be used. "We were also getting less walk-in intelligence at that time."

"Having the money turned back on by Ambassador Bremer and confirmed in the supplemental was very helpful,'' says Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division administering northern Iraq. "What we're doing is trying to enable the Iraqis, and they've achieved a great deal. Money is our ammunition."

It's hard to travel almost anywhere in Iraq without seeing examples of CERP spending, but not everyone is grateful.

Ali Yassin, a 22-year old who guards a parking lot in New Baghdad, a poor area in the center of the city, says his street was made almost unlivable by a clogged sewage system that overflowed whenever it rained.

"Even in the summer it would flood, raw sewage would come right across to the houses."

A CERP project dug up the street in front of his home and fixed that problem, which he says he's grateful for. But now he complains that the soldiers failed to pay for the repaving of the road where they worked, contributing to traffic jams. "I'm happy the sewer was fixed, but that doesn't change my views about the Americans. There are still a lot of people unemployed, Baghdad is still a dangerous place."

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