On the main road through this dusty and downtrodden community lies a compound designed to host a municipal center with local government offices, a building for council meetings, a firehouse and a library with a playground surrounded by cartoon-adorned walls.
But the front wall of the meeting facility is gone, with a pickup truck's chassis and axles jutting haphazardly out of a gaping hole littered with brick. The municipal offices are covered in broken glass and pieces of the ceiling. The walls are streaked with bloody handprints that trail toward the front gate, where the dirt is still charred in large streaks. The firehouse and library have been empty for weeks.
This is the site, about 10 miles west of Baghdad, where seven Iraqi civilians and an American soldier were killed in a massive suicide bomb blast last month. U.S. Army officers and local Iraqi officials said it was a symbol of an intensifying campaign by insurgents to attack public works projects and Iraqis who work with or seek help from the U.S.-led occupation.
These attacks have included the looting of a refurbished youth center, the razing of an economic development office, and the kidnappings and killings of town council members. Iraqi police and National Guardsmen have received frequent death threats; some were shot in the head as they walked home from work and others were beheaded by insurgents after warning letters were left at their homes.
"They are very effective at intimidation," a local Iraqi politician said in an interview at a secure U.S. military civil affairs center, speaking on condition of anonymity because he, his family and his colleagues have been told they would be killed if he cooperated with reconstruction efforts. "This is their new strategy. Whatever we build, they are going to destroy. If a project is under the aid of the Americans, they are going to destroy it. The terrorists don't want Iraq to be under control, they don't want the people of Iraq to be at peace."
While attacks on U.S. soldiers remain fairly random and opportunistic here, insurgent fighters are targeting places that Iraqis rely on for assistance, frustrating politicians, police and U.S. Army officers.
'Climate of fear'
"They want to demonstrate that the government is not successful, and they want to create a climate of fear," said Army Col. Mark A. Milley, whose 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division is pouring millions of dollars into rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure. "These are very serious people out there. There is no enemy as coldblooded and vicious as this enemy."
In recent weeks, insurgents have killed five members of the town council and have kidnapped two others. One of the hostages, a woman, is presumed dead. The other might have been beheaded, authorities suspect, based on telephone calls to her family. Eight members of an Iraqi National Guard post in the region have been killed in the past seven months, including one who was recently beheaded and another who was shot twice in the left eye as he left work this week. They were killed after receiving red form letters from extremists calling themselves the Company of Death. The battalion commander said he has had his life threatened 34 times, including six assassination attempts in the past 10 days.
U.S. military officials say such attacks are increasing. Maj. John Allred, 38, of Atlanta, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, which patrols the Abu Ghraib area, said: "Anything we're involved with, they want to see it fail. Anyone involved with us, they want to kill."
Maj. Russ Harper, 40, of Atlanta, is coordinating civil affairs projects for the 2nd Battalion in Abu Ghraib, where he says improvement projects worth $10 million have been undertaken in the past nine months. But during that period, five major projects have been sabotaged, contractors have been killed or driven from work by threats, and Iraqis have become more reluctant to help because of fear.
"If it's just an open thing they [insurgents] can get to, contractors risk death. They can blow up the project," Harper said. "We can try to be low-profile, but they still attack. Unfortunately, the terrorists have been pretty successful here."
Business center in ruins
Standing amid the chunks of concrete and plaster that were to be a local business center aimed at boosting economic activity and assisting job-seekers, Harper shook his head at what could have been. The building, a few hundred yards from a bustling market on one of the main streets, was renovated for $72,000 and finished in late August.
Three days after contractors applied a fresh coat of blue paint to the walls, a group stormed in late at night and detonated explosives, felling most of the structure. It is now a shell, its few remaining rooms charred and pockmarked. Water from broken pipes trickles through the wreckage.
"Of course it's frustrating, in part because it is a waste of U.S. resources, but these idiots are hurting the Iraqis, they're hurting their fellow people," Harper said.
The Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of prisoner abuse by U.S. forces that was disclosed earlier this year, is located outside the town, farther west of Baghdad.
An afternoon tour of the town highlighted many of the difficulties. The vacant lots and dirt streets in the First of March neighborhood -- a slum of squatters, stray dogs, lean-tos and half-finished buildings -- are flooded with water and raw sewage because a contractor refused to finish work on the sewer lines after he was kidnapped and later released for ransom. At the Abu Ghraib youth center -- which Harper called his "crown jewel project" following a $200,000 renovation -- nearly two dozen new computers and 20 air-conditioning units were looted four weeks ago. Insurgents then tried to set the large facility on fire. They also set a booby trap using a surface-to-air missile, but U.S. forces were able to defuse it.
Despite the sabotage, troops continue to go into the neighborhoods and try to determine what citizens need. On a patrol this week, 1st Lt. Tom Overmyer, 34, of Brockport, N.Y., ordered his mortar platoon of the 14th Infantry Regiment to dismount from their armored Humvees. They walked through a collection of narrow streets adjoining the highway so Overmyer could talk with residents. Iraqi children streamed out of their houses asking for candy as their fathers gathered on a corner to talk about connecting their homes to running water.
"No one came in here before us, and that's a shame," said Overmyer, who drew a small crowd on his second visit in three days. The neighborhood is hostile; rocket-propelled grenades are often fired from these streets, aimed at U.S. convoys that travel the highway. "They say their trash isn't being picked up, they need fuel and water."
Where the reconstruction efforts appear to be effective is at two college campuses in western Baghdad -- the nation's agricultural and veterinary schools -- where millions of dollars are being invested for the first time in decades. The schools, located in guarded compounds, show vibrant activity, with students strolling courtyards in the cool December breeze as exams approach. But with their new computers and furnishings, and athletic facilities under construction, the school leaders are facing threats as well.
"It's difficult to do anything now, but we have a good hope in the future," said Majid Nassir, assistant dean at the Baghdad College of Veterinary Medicine and a local council member in Baghdad's Rashid neighborhood. He said his life was threatened this week when a note was slipped under his door warning him not to consort with the Americans. He now travels with armed guards. "All the people are waiting for the settlement of peace," he said.