BAGHDAD — Crammed into armored Humvees heaving with weapons, Lt. Col. S. Jamie Gayton and his soldiers were greeted by a surprising sight as they rolled into one of Baghdad's poorest neighborhoods.
Men stood and waved. Women smiled. Children flashed thumbs-up signs as the convoy rumbled across the potholed streets of Sadr City.
It was a far more welcoming scene than the urban war zone of a year ago, when U.S. troops and black-clad guerrilla fighters battled in the narrow alleys of the squalid slum.
"We're making a huge impact," Gayton said as his men pulled up to a sewer station newly repaired with U.S. funds. "It has been incredibly safe, incredibly quiet and incredibly secure."
Sadr City has become one of the rare success stories of the U.S. reconstruction effort, say local residents, Iraqi and U.S. officials. Although vast swaths remain blighted, the neighborhood of 2 million mostly impoverished Shiites is one of the calmest in Baghdad. One U.S. soldier has been killed and one car bomb detonated in the last year, the military says.
The improvements are the result of an intense effort in the wake of the street battles last August with fighters loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Within a month, U.S. officials decided to make Sadr City a showcase for rebuilding, and increased spending to $805 million in a neighborhood long neglected under Saddam Hussein.
Having covered the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq for the last 22 months, I decided to take a measure of progress by going back to the same people I interviewed last August, in addition to talking with U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in the program.
Their stories provide insight into why the rebuilding of Sadr City is an impressive, if imperfect, accomplishment in Iraq, where many projects remain incomplete and U.S. promises unfulfilled.
Unlike elsewhere in Iraq, where the reconstruction fell under the purview of a hodgepodge of U.S. civilian agencies, the American military provided sustained, focused leadership in a limited geographic area. That focus provided the oversight needed to coordinate the military's efforts with those of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Pentagon's Project and Contracting Office, the primary reconstruction agencies.
The rebuilding also held more immediate significance among mid-level commanders in the field than among higher-level Pentagon officials preoccupied with fighting the war. The field officers focused on short-term, high-visibility projects such as cleaning up trash and digging wells, instead of massive new water treatment plants or power stations that take years to build. They also hired local Iraqi contractors, who in turn employed many of the militia members who had once battled U.S. troops.
Finally, unlike the U.S. multinationals contracted to build large infrastructure projects, the military did not have to rely on expensive security contractors for protection. That enabled soldiers to more easily communicate with Iraqis, monitor progress and overcome problems.
The results can be seen in the life of Ahmed Kadhem, who spent much of August 2004 huddled with his family inside their home as the war raged outside. The family had limited electricity, no water and no sewer connection.
A year later, his family remains without those basic services. But he has seen improvements all around him. And he is ready to give the Americans a chance.
"There is some movement," he said last month. "People have taken note."
The effects of the U.S. effort were apparent on a recent visit to Sadr City.
At the newly repaired sewer station, a local family guarding it greeted Gayton like an old friend; he had visited several times before.
Haita Zamel showed Gayton how the local sewer authority was fixing a problem that had developed in one pump. She proudly showed off the small home that had been built on the site to replace a dilapidated trailer where her family of six once lived. She even asked Gayton for computer software to teach English to her children.
"When you tell me something, I know you'll do it," she said, clutching tightly at the white scarf covering her head. "To the last day of our life, we are with you. Us and all of our neighbors."
Gayton and his men clambered back into the Humvees and moved on. A few minutes later, he ordered his driver to make a random stop in front of a group of stores where water lines had been installed. He wanted to make sure the water was flowing.
As a crowd gathered, the shop owners acknowledged better water. But they complained about electricity, saying that power lines were being installed at nearby shops but not theirs.
Gayton smiled. The military had divided Sadr City into four segments, each targeted for different improvements such as new sewers or clean water. That way, each area saw the improvements going on in the others, providing proof of progress and an incentive to remain cooperative.
"Everything happens one step at a time," Gayton told the men.