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Fighting the Peace in Nasiriya, Iraq

May 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Nasiriya, a city in south central Iraq, marine reservists, who are policemen back home, are working with Iraqis to build a new police force. They are trying to end the looting and crime plaguing Nasiriya and much of postwar Iraq. The marines were exhausted on the morning we visited because of emergency calls the night before.

STAFF SGT. CODY MacDOWELL, U.S. Marine Corps: We just responded to a couple of different incidents of shots being fired. Looting is a big issue here. They loot every night, anything from tiles to gas to any kind of materials you can imagine.

U.S. MILITARY OFFICER: They know that this is the time to do that kind of stuff. Everything’s in chaos.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To start up the police headquarters, the Americans are building new prison cells and refurbishing old AK-47s. There are 300 in this room, many confiscated from Iraqi fighters during the war.

U.S. MILITARY OFFICER: Treat every weapon as if it’s loaded.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The marines are training Iraqis in weapons safety, among other subjects. Some of the new force had served as policemen before, but American intelligence officers are trying to weed out those too close to the old regime. Before leaving for a joint patrol, weapons were handed out. The Iraqi police were in the green car in front. We joined Staff Sergeant Bobby Cirino behind.

STAFF SGT. BOBBY CIRINO, U.S. Marine Corps: You can see what just happened there. Bottled water just fell off that military truck and all the people ran out into the intersection to grab it; almost got hit by another truck.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The patrol’s destination was a construction materials depot that had been a prime target of looters and is now guarded round the clock by the new Iraqi police force. The lieutenant in charge said Nasiriya is far more secure than a month ago, because Iraqi police are in the streets again. But he said more is needed.

LT. BESHIR HUSSEIN, Nasiriya Police Department (Translated): First we need weapons for all the policemen, rifles and equipment for the officers. And our salaries – we haven’t been paid so far. We are providing the service to the whole community for free, without pay.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That was one of the big issues at the next day’s meeting between U.S. officers and an interim city council. It’s made up of local volunteers, who came forward to help with reconstruction and were accepted as civic leaders by the marines. The Americans and Iraqis get together most mornings and, with the help of a translator, set priorities for their work.

IRAQI POLICE OFFICER: You remember very well some days ago we claimed salaries…the city council claimed salaries for some policemen to be paid, a number of policemen.

U.S. MILITARY OFFICER: If you determine you need an even larger police force and you can show how we’re gonna pay for this and so on, that’s your proposal and we’ll be very happy to look at that.

We also know that we’re getting the judges back to work here in the next couple of days and the courthouse tomorrow. The courthouse, which is also, the construction is beginning, we had a reversal of the decision. Thank you, Allah, we got the money, so we’re now going to start rebuilding the courthouse.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The agenda is usually very long: everything from courthouse construction to clean water and medical emergencies. As we reported last night, U.S. troops are working closely with Iraqis and an array of humanitarian groups to bring medicines, food and clean water to Nasiriya

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Today, five weeks after the war ended, Nasiriya’s 300,000 residents are slowly regaining basic services. Still, many say if more isn’t done soon, goodwill towards American troops will run out. The major problem is that power and water plants were damaged by coalition bombing or looting after the war, and parts of Nasiriya still have no clean water and only sporadic electricity.

It’s very hot in this part of Iraq — 115 when we were there — and the heat raises the risk of disease from the sewage-contaminated water all around town. That night, the owner of a popular local restaurant said the new town council was effective.

But he said he hadn’t seen anything in the way of American reconstruction aid yet, and wondered why it was so late in coming. The commanding officer of the troops doing much of the reconstruction work here acknowledged that more must be done. He said he needs help from the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance – ORHA.

LT. COL. CHRISTOPHER HOLSHEK, 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, U.S. Army: We need money. We need money and help from our good friends in ORHA; we need help from our good friends in the State Department.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What kind of money do you need? For example, what kind of money do you have and what more do you need?

LT. COL. CHRISTOPHER HOLSHEK: Cash. Cash. We put in project submissions and that sort of thing, and it’s going through a circuitous approval and coordination process, but what I need is cash in pocket. You know, if I want to be able to fix a water pump…okay, for about the cost of a Humvee, that will feed this city, I just need to be able to it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And at this point you can’t?

LT. COL. CHRISTOPHER HOLSHEK: It’s not that I can’t, it’s just that there’s a process we have to go through. We had a visit from somebody from ORHA a week or so ago and that was about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just not present?

LT. COL. CHRISTOPHER HOLSHEK: I’m hoping they’re going to show up and bring all the resources they bring. But so far we’re just kind of hanging on here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he and his men are hanging on in ever-decreasing numbers. While we were in Nasiriya, some of the most experienced civil affairs troops were packing up because they’d been transferred to other parts of Iraq. Specialist David Collins had worked to help individual Iraqis with problems like medical care.

SPC. DAVID COLLINS, 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, U.S. Army: I thought it was great. People could come and have a chance to talk to someone with the U.S. Military, whether we could solve their problem or not. And lately just before we pulled out, it got very busy. I had 300 people waiting for me this morning.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who’s going to be there Saturday morning?

SPC. DAVID COLLINS: No one. That’s kind of the problem.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Corporal Scott Bambu helped keep the humanitarian groups briefed on security.

CPL. SCOTT BAMBU, 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, U.S. Army: We would love to stay here. We’ve been engaged doing some good things, at least I believe we are, and it’s just a matter of someone with, someone of higher authority is telling us that we need to go, so we’re going to go and see what happens from there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Other civil affairs troops remain behind, and the reconstruction work will continue; but the need is huge. Already groups like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq – a Shiite Muslim party whose exiled leaders had been based in Iran – are moving into offices in Nasiriya and promising to accomplish what the Americans haven’t been able to do so far.

LT. COL. CHRISTOPHER HOLSHEK: The thing about this kind of a mission is that the meter’s ticking.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Lieutenant Colonel Holshek said he believes that only so much time remains before Iraqis will lose patience and turn elsewhere for help.