By Melinda L. Larson
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 7, 2007 - Joint Defense and State Department provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq are guiding Iraqis through the intricacies of forming local governments and generating economic development, a U.S. State Department official said. "The basic goal of these teams is to expand out into the provinces," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker told online journalists and "bloggers" Aug. 3 from Baghdad. "Iraq is not a small country, and it has no tradition, really, of local or diffused leadership or governance. It's been very centralized."
Saddam Hussein's dictatorship quashed local governments in the country's 18 regions, Reeker said. The Iraqi constitution of 2005 mandates more provincial powers.
"Local government, as well as democracy as a whole, is sort of a whole new concept," he explained. "There was no tradition of the provinces working on their own. For a lot of people, this political process has been much more difficult than anticipated. I think it's even more difficult than the Iraqis anticipated."
Twenty-five provincial reconstruction teams of varying sizes are located throughout Iraq. Each civilian-military unit is led by a State Department officer who receives guidance from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq. To Reeker, combining efforts was a natural fit.
"They (the military) get stuff done. They've got specializations. They've got it down to a great process. (State Department officials) just don't have the same culture or resources, certainly, in terms of personnel," Reeker added.
In addition to the military's specialties, the State Department has enlisted the expertise of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Reeker said he expects about 600 personnel to be assigned to provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq by the end of the year.
"Definitely an interagency effort, just all kinds of people being drawn from our federal work force depending on the needs of the particular location," Reeker said.
The teams are expeditionary in nature and designed to develop political environments at the provincial level rather than building solid infrastructures. "They get with the local Iraqis and decide what the priorities should be, and that helps determine who makes up the provincial reconstruction teams. One of the tricks has been to get the right people, the right skill sets, in right away," Reeker added.
Just back from a visit to a provincial reconstruction team in Mosul, Reeker was able to get a sense of ground truth.
"You see these guys sort of mated up with the sheiks and the local governors, often at their side day in, day out. They do a whole host of things, (such as) advise them on how to conduct the next local council meeting. People turn to them, and it's an interesting development," Reeker noted.
Developing agricultural opportunities, answering civil engineering questions and strengthening the criminal justice system also are key to the success of the provincial reconstruction teams.
In Mosul, Reeker said, there are noticeable differences in the way the criminal justice system is viewed by the people of Iraq. A program facilitated by a provincial reconstruction team has judges from Baghdad presiding over cases in Mosul, where a year ago local judges were reluctant to try terrorism cases for fear of reprisals, Reeker explained.
"There's a whole new confidence about the justice system, and it has led to a decrease in crime and terrorism," he said.
By governing themselves at the provincial level, Reeker hopes the true success of the program can be measured by democracy gaining a hold throughout the country.
"You know, this democracy thing can be kind of catching, and as these guys figure it out at the local level and figure out what they can (do), ... the stronger they are, the more they can then demand and look for from the central government," Reeker said.