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Hal Bernton & Thomas Hurst
Hal Bernton Thomas Hurst
Iraq dispatches

Reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Thomas James Hurst have returned from spending a month in Iraq, reporting on the U.S. military campaign as well as the lives of Iraqi civilians.

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January 17, 2004

Rebuilding Iraq

Rory Stewart is a savvy young Englishman with an unruly head of hair.

In a bygone era, it would be easy to picture Stewart helping to keep the peace in New Delhi or some other far corner of the British Empire.

But this is the 21st century and Stewart is a member of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the civilian side of the occupation government.

Stewart works here in Al Amarah, a Shiite city in southern Iraq, that spreads out amid a great flat expanse just to the west of marshes that straddle the border between Iraq and Iran.

Last night, I shared a rare glass of red wine with Stewart in an impressive villa complete with swimming pool that was once occupied by an Iraqi general, who was a nephew of Saddam Hussein. It is now is the local headquarters for the coalition authority that includes an U.S.-style mess hall.

As I mentioned in an earlier dispatch, this city last week saw more bloodshed. People took to the streets in protest over unemployment, and several were killed. Contrary to earlier news reports, Stewart says that British soldiers killed one protestor, who was about to throw his second grenade. It was local police who killed several others.

And apparently the violence was stirred by some outside agitators, and complicated by some power struggles between two local sheiks. Once again, the forces churning beneath the surface here are more complex than they first appear.

For the most part, Stewart says that the area around Al Amarah has proved to be a far friendlier place for coalition work than the tense melting pot of Baghdad, or the Sunni region that surrounds the capital.

"In terms of the sentiment here, I think people are pretty optimistic,'' Stewart said. "They suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein, and any improvements here are very much appreciated."

With the money approved by the U.S. Congress, Stewart and other coalition officials are overseeing the spending of some $300 million in reconstruction funding in Al Amarah and the surrounding region.

Additional funds also are being funneled through U.S. Agency for International Development, and through groups such as the Pacific Northwest-based Mercy Corps.

With a regional population of about 750,000, the spending in and around Al Amarah will reach more than $400 for every man, woman, and child, according to Stewart.

Stewart points to a computer printout posted on the wall that lists more than 300 projects now underway, involving the rehabilitation of schools, increasing electrical generation, developing clean water sources and other efforts to boost living standards. Much of the money is being funneled through private U.S. contractors, and then through Iraqi contractors.

Stewart says a lot of work is getting done. But he also wants to get a better handle on some of the spending, and will be launching a series of audits.

The nearby wetlands are home to the Marsh Arabs, who have lived among the reeds for centuries.

Many were uprooted and killed by Saddam's forces, who also built dams to rob the land of its water. While many fled, some residents are returning, and the aid group, Mercy Corps, has gotten involved, trying to restore some normalcy in their shattered lives.

 
Posted by Hal Bernton at January 17, 2004 01:57 PM

 January 2004
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 ARCHIVES
January 2004
December 2003

 RECENT ENTRIES
A reluctant goodbye
Hope amid bloodshed
Rebuilding Iraq
A mortar sendoff
Higher pay, but inflation chews into salaries
Freedom brings protests
Inside, outside the Green Zone
With the Stryker Brigade
Mice and men
Next stop: Bravo Company

 LINKS

Mideast blogs

Juan Cole "Informed Comment"

Healing Iraq

L.T. Smash (U.S. military in Iraq)

Lady Sun (Iran)


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