March 15, 2007

The Opportunity In Sadr City

A report by The Scotsman on the shock experienced by American troops on their first forays into Sadr City reveal an opportunity that we can seize to push the militias aside. Basic services such as sewage and trash removal do not exist, and although the residents of the slums have so far given the American surge a chance, success will depend on replacing those services provided by the militias:

In a capital where public services barely function and five straight hours of electricity is a cause for celebration, Sadr City stands out. Some 2.5 million people, nearly all of them Shiites, live in the northeastern Baghdad community. Many of them lack running water and proper sewerage. Hundreds of thousands have no jobs and subsist on monthly food rations, a throwback to the international sanctions of the Saddam Hussein era.

Streets in some parts of Sadr City run black with sludge. Damaged power lines provide, at best, only four hours of electricity a day.

Many US soldiers were unprepared for what they found. During a patrol last week, troops brushed flies from their faces as they drove through rotting heaps of refuse and excrement that were piled outside houses. One soldier opened his Humvee's door and vomited.

Improving the quality of life for Iraqis - including those in Sadr City - is part of the American strategy, articulated by the new US commander, General David Petraeus. Once areas have been rid of insurgents, criminals and death squads, the US hopes to pump in cash to encourage small businesses and revive the local economy.

The plan is for the Americans and their Iraqi counterparts to stay in the neighbourhoods to keep the militants from returning. But first comes security: economic improvement will have to wait until the streets are safe.

The sorry state of Sadr City has increased the appreciation of the Mahdi Army's role in the slums for American troops. What few services the residents received came from the Shi'ite militias -- along with protection rackets, violence, and exploitation. These people want to see their situation change, and they will be willing to work with almost anyone who can improve their conditions and allow them to get off of the dole.

General David Petraeus understands this. His strategy of neighborhood-based security allows for close interaction with the residents. He has adjusted the tactics used in implementing security to allow for softer, more friendly approaches to Sadr City residents, who will appreciate the difference between professional American troops and the crime-lord approach of the Mahdis. At this level, it is a hearts-and-minds strategy that Petraeus hopes will pay short- and long-term dividends.

At the same time, the US needs to start getting trash, sewage, and electical services running. Instead of having the Army or American contractors do the work, though, the US should invest resources to help create Iraqi businesses for these tasks. It would help employ thousands who need jobs and jump-start the creation of a Sadr City middle class. Entrepeneurialism will accelerate the process of clearing the trash and cleaning the streets while the sewage and electrical systems get put back to working order.

Security comes first, but efforts such as these have to follow soon after, or security will soon disappear. The US has a chance to make an impact on sectarian animosity by allowing everyone the chance for some prosperity, and to give Iraqis ownership of their own progress. A kick start beats a kicked-in door in the long run, as Petraeus knows. Let's hope Congress can figure this out as well.


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