Iraqis, Americans meet to rebuild

19 May 2003 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

Halfway up the stairs into the Al Kut city hall, a painting of Saddam Hussein once stood, framed by two tall windows.  Now, the painting is boarded up, with only the top of the dictator's head still showing.

Under guidance of the Marine Corps's 4th Civil Affairs Group, a reserve unit based out of Washington, D.C., the site was host to a meeting of Buck Walters, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance's Heartland Division, local leaders of the Wasit province and their counterparts in the 4th CAG May 15.

Through a translator, the Iraqis brought up concerns to Walters, a retired Army brigadier general, who consulted with the Marines of 4th CAG and provided answers and guidance.

The local director of agriculture asked what farmers were supposed to do with their crops, which were ready to be harvested.

"I have been told that the World Food Program will purchase all the grain," Walters told him.  "Further, I have been told that they will purchase it at world market price.  It may be necessary for farmers to accept on faith that they'll be paid, and not allow the harvest to rot in the field."

Others asked about how civil service workers would be paid.  Walters told them about how ORHA's main office was working to restart the country's central banking system, and asked Lt. Col. Robert Zangas, detachment commander of 4th CAG in Al Kut, about the bank system in the province.

"We've seized some money in the province, and we're waiting for reinforcements from higher," said Zangas, a Level Green, Penn. native.

Walters replied that money would be provided from the central government in Baghdad.  He added that the 10,000 Iraqi dinar bill - worth roughly $5 - is legal currency, and will continue to remain in circulation.

Other concerns were brought up - one person mentioned a lack of fuel in the province. Another asked about what to do with teachers who were members of the Ba'ath party.  Walters said that there were supply and infrastructure problems, but promised that they would be resolved in 30 days.  For Ba'athist teachers, some would be fired, some demoted, and others relocated. 

"I appreciate very much spending this time with you," said Walters at the close of the meeting.  "But I noticed you didn't speak very much, perhaps because you think the Ba'athists are listening.  But it doesn't matter.  Iraq is going to be a democracy, and in a democracy you can say what you believe.  Talk from the heart, shout at each other.  We have a ways to go here, but we will fix these things."

While ORHA Heartland is in charge of reconstruction efforts in the I Marine Expeditionary Force's area of operations, day-to-day affairs in Al Kut are overseen by the civil affairs Marines, who are breaking new ground assisting in the construction of a free Iraq.

"We're Johnny-on-the-spot guys that take care of what problems are now, during battle and the beginning of reconstruction," said Zargas.  "We rely on (ORHA) for funding to get projects completed, and for big picture guidance."