Samarra, Iraq — It’s another sunny day, and as I walk with a few soldiers away from the Golden Mosque, turning the corner to enter the adjacent Bank Street market, we encounter the stout and gruff-looking Iraqi National Police officer in charge of security at the mosque. He tells us that over 20,000 Shia pilgrims have visited the shrine in the past ten days, bringing badly needed business back to the market. After two years of delays, the security situation has improved sufficiently to allow mosque reconstruction to begin, and pilgrims to return.
The shops along this market, and industries throughout Samarra, are slowly coming back to life. In 2007, al-Qaeda strong-armed businesses into closing, even firing indiscriminately into markets to deter their existence. This brutal bravado is a thing of the past, but deeper civic problems remain, severely curtailing Samarra’s ability to fully rebuild. While the city’s soul has been reborn, piles of rubble, bombed out buildings, and unemployed young men still dominate Samarra’s streetscape.
As outlined in previous posts, security gains in Samarra have been dramatic: IED attacks are down 97 percent, small-arms attacks are down 80 percent, and confiscated enemy weapons caches are up by 800 percent since December 2007. We’ve at last created the necessary security environment for economic and political progress — the first and most important step in any counterinsurgency fight. The rest of the country experienced this transformation in 2007; it took another year for Samarra to catch on.
But crumbling sidewalks and roads, unreliable water and electricity, and under-developed government leadership prevent Samarrans from putting the devastation of the past five years fully behind them. When I served in Samarra, we did our best to address development and reconstruction, to little avail. Today, the American unit in Samarra — “No Slack” infantry battalion — has the chance to pick up our slack.
You might ask: Why is this our business? Why should Americans spend the time, money, and manpower to address governance and reconstruction in Iraq? The answer is not only, or even primarily, Samarra’s people. While I personally sympathize with their plight — “no one should live this way,” No Slack’s commander reiterated during my recent visit — rebuilding the city and putting its people to work is in America’s strategic interest. Clean water, abundant electricity, well-paved roads, open schools, teeming markets — these are America’s most potent weapons in limiting the propagation of al Qaeda’s worldview.
When I worked on governance in Samarra two years ago, our top responsibility was to develop the city council to create the indigenous mechanisms necessary to sustain local reconstruction and, eventually, manage redevelopment money. Aside from security concerns — which can’t be underestimated — three main factors prevented durable progress for Samarra in 2006: lack of broad political cooperation, absence of local budget money, and nonexistent provincial representation in Tikrit. All three are currently being addressed — with varying success, but they are being addressed.
When I arrived in Samarra last week, I was surprised to see the same mayor — Mahmood Khalaf Ahmed Al Bazzi — still at the helm. A coy and calculating man, he fled to Syria at the height of violence in 2007, only to return three months ago. (It was a wise decision: during his absence, al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents assassinated the interim mayor.) While Mayor Mahmood is not a natural leader, he is a competent administrator, and genuinely has Samarra’s best interests in mind. We shared a meal together upon my return, and he invited me to attend a city council meeting the next day.
I attended dozens of city council meetings in 2006, but nothing like what I saw that day. For two hours, in an overcrowded and under-ventilated meeting room — the power, and thus the air conditioning, switched off and on — I watched 18 city council members (only four local members attended meetings in 2006) from all the major tribes contentiously debate a smorgasbord of issues. I used the meeting agenda to fan my face, the first such agenda I’d ever seen in Iraq.
The day prior, I attended a small meeting of the Samarra Reconstruction Committee, a No Slack brainchild intended to foster joint American-Iraqi oversight of Iraqi reconstruction money. In an even smaller room beset by buzzing flies, the mayor, city-council president, Sons of Samarra leaders, local ministry directors, and two No Slack officers spent the afternoon interviewing prospective contractors for four renovation projects — Samarra’s water-treatment plant, asphalt plant, courthouse, and her largest market.
The contractors competed (on the merits) for the opportunity to manage these projects, all funded by the Iraqi government in a new program called ICERP — the Iraqi Commander’s Emergency Reconstruction Program. For the first time in five years, Samarra and other local governments have dedicated funding from the national government with which they can deliver tangible progress for their people. And for the first time in years, respectable contractors capable of quality workmanship feel secure enough to work in public. In Samarra, this means reconstruction — and local employment — may finally begin.
As for the ever-important metric of public opinion however, the local government has thus far failed. While the Sons of Samarra are widely popular, the local government is a laughingstock. Some things, I guess, are universal. “They are all talk, and no action,” said the Samarrans I spoke with. “They should leave the Green Zone to see the reality of how the people are living.” I’m not sure how aware city leaders are of this sentiment, but eventually it will either change, or they’ll be out of a job.
The discussion on the street and among local leaders always seems to turn to upcoming provincial elections. Samarra is leading the country in the number of new registrants for the not-yet-scheduled elections — a reflection of both Samarrans’ eager anticipation now, and their non-involvement in previous elections, which left Samarra with no votes in the provincial capital of Tikrit. Samarrans look forward to voting their own into power, and believe doing so will bring reconstruction money flowing down the Tigris.
What I am witnessing in Samarra is not Jeffersonian democracy, but it is Iraq-racy (as General Petraeus likes to call it). Votes are held, decisions are made — but only after tea is served. With security concerns in the rear-view mirror, Samarrans now expect their government — and American forces — to deliver on unmet promises. Their future, and our mutual security, hang in the balance.
– Captain Pete Hegseth of the Army National Guard served in Samarra, Iraq with the 101st Airborne from December 2005 to July 2006 and has returned there as an embedded correspondent for NRO as part of Vets for Freedom’s “Back to Iraq” effort.