Baghdad, Iraq — While awaiting transport to Samarra two days ago, I spent most of the morning and afternoon at the (in)famous Al-Rasheed Hotel; meeting place du jour for Iraq’s politicians, tribal leaders, businessmen, contractors, journalists, and journeymen.
Describing the lobby scene itself could fill this entire page — with elegantly shrouded sheiks sending seemingly choreographed plumes of smoke skyward as they debate, Iraqi journalists hustling to the next story, and businessmen negotiating contracts between puffs on the hookah. Think of the bar scene from Star Wars. All types, from all lands, converge here.
As I wait for my first meeting, I do my best — and fail — to fit in. My first interview spots me easily and we sit near a wall-to-ceiling window, overlooking an overgrown garden and dried up fountain — typical Green Zone landscaping. Tea is served, and while I turn on my tape recorder, my counterpart lights a thin cigar and settles in.
Tahseen al-Sheikhly, a middle-aged Sunni with a big smile and even bigger mustache, is the civilian spokesman for Operation Fardh al-Qanoon, or the Baghdad Security Plan. Al-Sheikhly and his family have lived at the hotel since May — when Mahdi Army fighters attacked his home in retribution for the central government’s crackdown in Basra and Sadr City. His was one of many houses targeted.
“Forty fighters surrounded our house, and for more than 45 minutes, my bodyguards and I engaged them,” recalls al-Sheikhly. “They [shot] my house with six RPGs, they burned the house, they stole five cars, they destroyed everything . . . and then kidnapped me and held me for five days.” They treated him well, he says, but made it clear that he will be killed if he continues to cooperate with U.S. Forces and work for the Iraqi government.
Yet, he continues. And earlier this week placed himself smack dab in the middle of the Mahdi Army’s former stronghold to host a press conference announcing over $100 million in Iraqi reconstruction money for the beleaguered neighborhood of Sadr City. At this press conference, and during our conversation, al-Sheikhly repeatedly emphasized that this Baghdad security plan is succeeding — whereas five previous failed — because military operations (the Surge) have been synched with “providing and improving services.”
He recognizes that dramatic security gains will only be maintained if they are supported by effectively administered civil services. Winning the war means also securing the peace — starting with water, electricity, and sewage. In attempts to secure the peace, American troops serving in Iraq — of all ranks, regions, and timeframes — have witnessed scores of multi-million-dollar projects fizzle out where the PowerPoint meets the road. Most projects have failed due to unrealistic security assessments or incompetent delivery mechanisms — or both.
Sustained neighborhood-level security is the foundation that will allow this round of reconstruction initiatives to endure where others have collapsed. The security gains in Baghdad are more dramatic then anything seen previously — a model for our continuing efforts in Sadr City.
As for delivery, al-Sheikhly spoke confidently about the Maliki government’s ability to deliver meaningful improvements in Sadr City, citing a “special committee” that will decide how the money is spent. This part remains to be seen. If, how, and when, the Maliki delivers basic services to Sadr City will provide tangible proof of his central government’s effectiveness. Maliki’s record in this regard is thin, and al-Sheikhly knows the people want results.