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Teams try to rebuild a nation

One member of the U.S. civilian-military effort in Iraq refers to it as `the Peace Corps with guns.'

January 10, 2007|Paul Richter and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

KIRKUK, IRAQ — For nearly a year, a team of U.S. civilian and military officials has worked from small, sparsely furnished offices here trying to help Iraqi officials with their most urgent needs: building a local government and providing basic public services.

"Provincial reconstruction teams" like this one are expected to be central to the economic component of the new Iraq policy that President Bush plans to unveil today. But in emphasizing such steps, Bush and his aides are courting widespread skepticism. Many U.S. officials and outside Iraq experts view the economic and political portion of Bush's package, like his expected proposal to increase the number of U.S. troops in the country, to be a big gamble with a limited chance of success.

"There's reason to try all of these ideas, and that's why we have tried them before," said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush had not yet detailed his new strategy. "We're reliving all of the issues that have been discussed since 2003. It's like 'Groundhog Day.' "

The 35-member team in this northern Iraqi city has funneled money to aid and reconstruction projects, helped set up temporary job and job-training programs, and assisted local officials with budgets and other issues. Yet it has been hampered by shortages of skilled staff and money and a lack of security, problems that have undermined previous multibillion-dollar U.S. reconstruction efforts across the country since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The current Kirkuk effort is being conducted by an eclectic group, including a former member of the British Parliament, a high school chemistry teacher, a commercial pilot, a marketing manager, a retired state trooper and a career diplomat. One member, a lawyer who helps set up local courts, refers to the group as "the Peace Corps with guns."

Some team members caution that the tough problems they face can't be solved through a quick infusion of money or personnel.

"There's no cheap surge," said Kirkuk team leader Jim Bigus, a career diplomat who came to Iraq from Afghanistan, where he was deputy director of the U.S. Bureau for International Narcotics Law Enforcement Affairs. "You've got to get more attractive salaries to people here, and you've got to get more security, and more locations. And that's hard to do quickly."

Bush is expected to announce plans to double the number of provincial reconstruction teams and call for big new job and loan programs and a renewed reconstruction effort. Administration officials consider the economic and political aspects of Bush's plan more important than the expected troop increase.

The plan has two stages, officials say. Once troops have pacified key areas of Baghdad and Al Anbar province, officials will offer economic and political benefits, including jobs that they hope will win the loyalty of young men who are now fighting U.S. and Iraqi government security forces.

Shortage of civilian help

U.S. military officials have long complained about the shortage of civilian American officials available to work with local governments. Senior U.S. officials are calling for an increase in civilian workers to accompany the expected addition of up to 20,000 troops.

The provincial reconstruction teams at work in Iraq were modeled on organizations used in Vietnam and Afghanistan and are expected to be a principal channel for new aid.

Members of the Kirkuk team say senior U.S. officials have hinted at the possibility of added resources and have urged State Department officials on the team not to close a regional embassy office that might be needed in the future.

"We've been asked a lot in the last month how many more people we could use, or money," said team leader Bigus.

The team's routine, four days a week, is to strap on armor and helmets and pile into a convoy of armored Humvees for trips into the field to confer with Iraqi officials and others. None of its members, however, speaks Arabic or Kurdish, though there are five interpreters on staff.

The usual destination is the faded gray and yellow Kirkuk Government Building, which is safe enough to allow them to shed their weapons and armored vests while they sip tea with officials.

Since arriving last spring, the Kirkuk team has helped arrange $744 million in spending from Iraqi, Pentagon and USAID sources for 599 development projects. U.S. officials view the Kirkuk team as a showcase.

Yet it has faced major obstacles. It has not been able to recruit all the civilian specialists it would like, and has had to turn to military personnel to pick up the slack. Only about one-third of its members are civilians. The original plan called for a 50-50 split.

Still, the work is considered vital. Bigus said that better public services could turn Iraqis away from the insurgency, but worried that more troops could lead to more casualties, hurting the team effort.

"Dead officers don't do reports, and the more deaths we have, the more problems we have recruiting," he said.

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