ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ — As American forces work to revive Iraq's tattered farming economy, they seem to have found an effective new weapon.
At the suggestion of an Iraqi women's group, the Marine Corps recently bought 50 cows for 50 Iraqi widows in the farm belt around Fallouja, once the insurgent capital of war-torn Anbar province.
The cow purchase is seen as a small step toward reestablishing Iraq's once-thriving dairy industry, as well as a way to help women and children hurt by the frequent failure of the Iraqi government to provide the pensions that Iraqi law promises to widows.
The early sign is that the program is working. Widows, many with no other income, have a marketable item to sell, as well as milk for their children. Although Iraqis, particularly women, are often reluctant to participate in an American effort, the cows were immediately popular.
"It was an easy sell," said Maj. Meredith Brown, assigned to the Marines' outreach program for Iraqi women.
The idea, proposed by members of the Women's Cultural Center in Fallouja, at first met with resistance from U.S. military officers and civilian officials involved in aid programs for Anbar. Nothing in their training provided guidance in haggling for livestock.
But those objections quickly evaporated when Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq, signaled his support, Brown said. The Iraqis now refer to their animals as Kelly's Cows.
Though Kelly's support may have been based on gut instinct, the need to beef up Iraq's badly broken dairy industry was argued in a Nov. 25 report by Land O'Lakes Inc.
The Minnesota cheese-and-butter company was hired by the Marine Corps to examine the Iraqi dairy industry. Its 38-page report, based on field research in the fall by two Land O'Lakes dairy specialists, concluded that there was enormous growth potential for the industry in a milk-drinking, cheese-eating nation that can locally produce enough milk to satisfy only 5% of the demand.
The study also pointed out that, even in Iraqi farm families with able-bodied adult males, much of the work is left to women: "Women milk the cows, bring feed and fodder to the animals and are supported by their children."
Though Americans know Land O'Lakes best from its products in the dairy case, the company has been involved in 150 development projects in 70 countries in recent decades. Among them was a dairy project in Afghanistan after the Taliban was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Its report cited a litany of woes besetting the Iraqi dairy industry: facilities damaged by war, looting or neglect; a lack of good feed; a dearth of veterinarians and the initiative-numbing effect of three decades of centralized planning under Saddam Hussein.
"Every link in the value chain was broken, but we found that every link is fixable," said Zaheer Baber, regional director for Asia and the Middle East for Land O'Lakes' international development division.
The report suggested several construction projects for U.S. military and civilian officials to consider funding, possibly with the Iraqi government.
One idea was for a new dairy owned and operated by the Women's Cultural Center, which would be a bold move in a male-dominated society. As a first phase, Marines and Land O'Lakes specialists are discussing a milk-collection facility run by the women to help them learn accounting, marketing and other skills.
The cows-for-widows program is just the latest of several initiatives by the U.S. to help Iraq's dairy and beef industries. Some efforts have been individual, such as buying a replacement cow in 2004 for a farmer near Ramadi who complained that his animal was killed in the crossfire between Marines and insurgents. Other initiatives have been larger in scale, such as inspections of herds by Army veterinarians.
Also, the U.S. is taking the lead in the rehabilitation of a milk-collection center in Fallouja. And Army personnel and advisors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture met this year with farmers at a dairy in the Wehida region south of Baghdad that once had 8,000 cows but now can barely handle a fraction.
In Anbar, two factors drew the Marines to the cow purchase: It was small-scale and it was suggested by the Iraqis. The Marines have learned that big-ticket projects, or those imposed by the U.S. on the Iraqis without local support, start with two strikes.
The Marines began buying cows in November at a livestock market at Saqlawiyah. Of the 50 cows, 35 were pregnant and 10 already had calves, which went along with their mothers. The five others were taken to a laboratory for artificial insemination. Brown put the program cost so far at $58,000.
To qualify for a free cow, each widow had to sign an agreement not to slaughter or sell the animal and instead to use the milk as a marketable item or for the family.
The project is not entirely altruistic. The Marines believe that widows with at least some economic resources are less likely to join Al Qaeda to carry out suicide attacks in exchange for a promise that their children will be cared for after the women are gone.
"If she's desperate enough, she just might put on that [suicide] vest or drive that truck" full of explosives, Maj. Brown said.