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Security woes undermine best-laid plans

U.S. Troops Patrol The Streets Of Baghdad
U.S Pfc. Hale with the 1st Cavalry, 1-9 Infantry patrols in Baghdad as security remains high. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

In a briskly air-conditioned room somewhere in the depths of Camp Victory near the Baghdad International Airport, Col. Michael Formica is repeating himself.

"It's all about low-hanging fruit," said Formica, gesturing toward his PowerPoint presentation. "Low-hanging fruit.”

The commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division is referring to easily achieved tasks that will enlist the support of Iraqis who have come to doubt the Americans' ability to rebuild a peaceful, self-functioning country. 

In laying out a summary of a plan to clean up the 21 neighborhoods for which his unit is responsible, Formica rattles through a list of short-term tasks that will create "instant employment, instant beautification and instant change in perception."

The projects include rebuilding a market, renovating a youth center, and refurbishing facilities at a local veterinary college. 

Buried among the maps and bullet points are colorful slides.

One of them suggests a future still unimaginable for most Iraqis in a neighborhood that now will forever be associated with the worst of American behavior in Iraq.

The slide shows Abu Ghraib, the neighborhood that houses the notorious prison that has become the focus of the growing abuse scandal that has severely damaged the military's credibility in Iraq.

In this case, the neighborhood — a rough, low-income part of Baghdad teeming with men formerly employed by the Iraqi military industry — is reincarnated as a picturesque suburb with lush green gardens and neat rows of brick houses.

When the presentation is finished, a small, stout Iraqi speaks. In halting English, Dr. Majid Nassir of the Baghdad Veterinary College thanks Formica and his men. But then he adds, "Before anything, we must work on security."

Security concerns trump all
It's a familiar refrain, one that has plagued the 1st Cavalry Division since it formally assumed control over Naghdad from the 1st Armored Division a little over a month ago. 

It was a tough welcome. The fighting in April — which resulted in scores of American deaths and hundreds of Iraqi casualties — was the worst since the war. Not only did the violence halt rebuilding efforts, it reinforced the growing Iraqi perception that the coalition has yet to accomplish anything.

"The biggest problem is that the coalition's been here over a year, and nothing's changed," said Col. Kendall Cox, commander of the Engineer Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division.

"So we've set out this low-hanging fruit strategy. Find something you can reach up and grab and fix and show the Iraqi people."

A clean sweep?
The strategy is bound up in "Operation Iron Broom," a key part of the unit's mission "to defeat anti-coalition forces in order to create the infrastructure and economic conditions for the transfer to legitimate Iraqi governance" on June 30.

The $10 million operation was launched in Baghdad in March and encourages local participation in the reconstruction effort.

Some of these projects, modest in size and scope, show initial promise. A new walled market area just opened in Abu Dasher, a district with some of the lowest literacy and employment rates in Baghdad. The new space provides enough room for 150 to 200 stalls and boasts small details such as running clean water to improve sanitary conditions.

"This is the ideal thing we need to do. It's built by Iraqis for Iraqis," said Cox. "We're not doing this. We're providing the means and the money for Iraqis to do this." 

As the colonel leaves the market, he's approached by an elderly Iraqi man who has been guarding the market space. The man wants a gun to better protect the new facility. But Cox shook his head. "Right now, we cannot give weapons." 

A new soccer field opened with fanfare recently. Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony, local officials sat under a marquee, passages from the Quran were read out, and two teams kicked off on the new pitch.

But surrounding the field was a seven-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire; on opening day, dozens of young Iraqi boys clung to the wire peering through at the U.S. troops standing guard.

Case study: Kerkh sewage treatment plant
Other projects better illustrate the challenges of rebuilding basic services in a dangerous environment. The Kerkh Sewage Treatment Plant is one of three designed to protect the Tigris River from raw sewage produced by the city's 5.2 million residents. 

But a lack of maintenance, a shortage of spare parts and extensive looting during the war have rendered the southern Baghdad plant ineffective in processing the waste generated by 2 million people. 

Since last year, Bechtel, through a contract with USAID, has been responsible for overhauling the plant. But two months ago, when violence flared across Baghdad, two plant workers were killed when their car hit a roadside bomb. 

Both Bechtel and local employees immediately stopped going to work until the 1-8 Battalion of the 1st Cavalry showed up to secure the plant premises. 

"There were random mortar rounds, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), shooting," said Capt. Rex Blair, D Company commander of the 1-8. "The FPS (Facility Protection Service) was not wanting to come to work, so we started providing a 24-hour presence."

The FPS, which is responsible for protecting ministry buildings and government property, returned, shortly followed by Iraqi workers. But as of last weekend Bechtel consultants who supervise the overhaul had yet to make an appearance back at the plant, according to an Iraqi engineer directly employed by Bechtel, who would only identify himself as "Mr. Thair."

Kerkh was supposed to be functioning by mid-April, but the work stoppage means it won't be up and running until mid-May. Even then, said Cox, it will only be "30 percent operational." The plant is due to be completely rehabilitated by October of this year.

Reviving the economy
The 1st Cavalry has another weapon in its arsenal.  "It's all about jobs. Jobs and a secure environment," said Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry's support operations.  

The unit runs through a list of job creation numbers. "There's 1,200 people back to work in Al Rashid district this week," said Col. Steve Lanza, commander of the Cavalry's 5th Brigade.  Many of them are street cleaners hired for $5 a day. 

A meatpacking plant, the second largest in Iraq, will initially employ 500 people when it reopens in the next six months.  Eventually it will create 1,000-1,200 jobs.

Money, too, is an effective tool, said Lt. Col. Tim Ryan of the 2-12 Battalion of the 1st Cavalry. 

"I think everybody's getting tired of all the violence, and they've been without jobs," he said. "And what we did as soon as things got quiet was we spent ... $160,000 in the last two to three weeks."  Most of that money, added Ryan, is "short-term. So we have to roll over a lot of these short-term projects over."

Youth center for Abu Ghraib
One of these is a youth center in Abu Ghraib, where as many as 40,000 jobs have been lost since coalition troops took over Iraq last year.

Most of the jobless come from the Iraqi military industry that dissolved with the end of the war, including the Republican Guard, a munitions factory and Baghdad International Airport.

"Anything that we can pump into here will enhance not only their ability to get a job but security as well," said Ryan, pointing to the youth center, a brightly painted building that stands out in an open field dotted with date palms. 

"It amazes [the Iraqis] when I say we spent five million dollars in this community in the last year," he continued. "One of the ways to give a statement that we've done something is to paint it in loud colors so they can see that we've done something."

Next door lies the site of Abu Ghraib's future market. The land, which takes up a couple of acres, is dusty and barren. 

But, the 1st Cavalry hopes to break ground by June and to install up to 200 stalls.  Roughly $650,000 has been allocated for constructing the market, which Capt. Paul McBride of the 425 Civil Affairs Battalion said will provide "additional economic opportunity" for the local community.   

But as McBride wraps up a tour of the site, a loud explosion goes off a few hundred meters away. No one is hurt; the blast occurred in an empty lot. 

But it's a stark reminder that for all the U.S. Army's talk of economic opportunity and growth, security is still the biggest issue facing the coalition. 

Until they can safeguard the Iraqi population's well-being, jobs will continue to take a backseat.