US hopes jobs dim allure of Iraq's militant groups

NPP Pressroom

The Seattle Times
Elena Becatoros

HUDA, Iraq — Children skip across a stream of raw sewage on a side road, trash piles up in a dusty lot and there are few desks — and even fewer chairs — in the village school's dark, cold classrooms. On the main street, fruits and vegetables are displayed for sale on sacks lying under corrugated metal awnings. Huda, a Shiite village of about 3,000 southeast of Baghdad, sits on the edge of a region the U.S. military and locals say is dominated by insurgents and al-Qaida in Iraq. Here, many men are out of work, and the village is in desperate need of basic services. Grinding poverty and disillusionment with the government and U.S.-led coalition can create fertile ground for insurgent or militia recruitment. But the U.S. military believes it has a way to help residents and the village by providing jobs that also could dim the allure of militancy. Modeled on a program under which the U.S. pays armed groups who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, the military has begun recruiting villagers for public-service jobs — working to improve sanitation, do repairs and pick up trash. "Today is a new idea," said Capt. John Horning, the 36-year-old company commander of C Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment stationed in the area. Instead of hiring people to secure their neighborhoods, "we'll have them doing sanitation, cleaning up the area, reconstruction." "It's a pilot program," said Horning, from Houston, Texas. "We'll see how it works." The hope is that the jobs will give residents a legitimate way to make a living and prevent them from turning to militia or insurgent groups, many of which are suspected of paying men to carry out attacks. "Only barely second to security in my neighborhood is employment, and so I've got to find a way to make that bridge," said Lt. Col. Jack Marr, commander of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment. Instead of having Iraqis "out there with guns ... I hand them a shovel and get them digging up trash." Each person hired will receive a salary of $300 a month, the same amount as members of the mainly Sunni armed groups known as Awakening Councils who now protect their neighborhoods with the help of American and Iraqi forces. The Awakening Councils — 70,000-strong and growing fast — have contributed to a 60 percent decrease in violence across Iraq since June, along with a six-month cease-fire called in August by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for his Mahdi Army militia and an extra 30,000 U.S. troops sent into Baghdad. Horning's region, which covers about 100 square miles and 12 towns, has both Sunni and Shiite Awakening groups. With less violence — residents say Huda hasn't been attacked by mortars for three months — people can concentrate on rebuilding their lives. "Here where security is better, we need the return to normalcy," Horning said. "We're putting dollars into the economy, to get people working. People see that there's hope, that there's an alternative." But with the project funded by the U.S., what happens when American forces leave? "If we have a strong area and government, then there will be no problem," insists Sheik Zeidan Hussein Ali al-Masoudi. "The Americans are visitors. We must do something for ourselves. We want to live free. All Iraqis need is for the [foreign] forces to leave as soon as the work is done. ... All Iraqis want this." On the first day of recruiting in Huda last week, three dozen men lined up outside the dilapidated schoolhouse, their application forms in bright yellow, blue and pink folders rolled in their fists. Some have been out of work for years. "The people here need money," Sheik Naheth Ouaidi al-Shameri, one of several sheiks who turned out, told the U.S. officer. Horning said he was looking to recruit about 600 in the area. Like Awakening Council volunteers, all applicants go through biometric screening — fingerprinting, iris scans, photographs — in an attempt to ensure none is an insurgent or criminal.