By Jamie Findlater
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 30, 2007 - The provincial reconstruction team in Iraq's Salah ad Din province is hard at work with local leaders to promote organization in governance, economic development, and rule of law, the team's leader said yesterday. Steven Buckler, speaking with Internet journalists and "bloggers" in a conference call, said the Salah ad Din PRT has about 50 members.
"A third of them are our security personnel, who escort us in the Humvees when we go into town," he explained. The other two thirds, 35 or so, are a mix of civilian and military members. "We're in town five, six days a week, interacting for the most part with provincial government officials," Buckler said.
Salah ad Din province is about 100 miles north of Baghdad, near deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Buckler detailed the success of the team's efforts so far, citing a recent conversation with the head of the provincial council, who said that they have more projects going on now in this region than they ever had during Saddam's reign.
"I think when an elected official can stand up and say that," Buckler said, "it means there has been real progress." To the provincial leader, he explained, the number of projects is a sign of their success in governance.
The successful passage of a capital budget was a major accomplishment for Buckler's team. "That's about a $100 million budget," he said. "When you consider the history of Iraq, this is probably the first time anything like that has been done."
When the provincial government was elected in January 2006, it faced the task of developing a legislative process and a budget process and creating something from that, Buckler said. Today, they are in the process of executing that budget, and Buckler said they are doing exceptionally well. His team helps with training and with developing processes and relationships within the legislature, he explained, and also helps provincial officials to work with city councils and mayors throughout the province.
Another important project for Buckler's team is a continued effort to improve public services throughout the region.
"We're working with provincial leaders on helping them develop a public message and social programs to combat extremism," he said. "It's very similar to what we see in the United States with gang violence." Meeting with local tribal leaders is an important part of the strategy, he added.
Buckler stressed the importance in reconstruction operations of instituting a clearing house of information focusing on civilian-sector experience beneficial for PRT service and lessons learned from ongoing endeavors.
Civilian members of the PRTs are drawn from various U.S. Agency for International Development-funded organizations, as well as from such government departments as the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, and employees of USAID, Buckler, a State Department employee, explained. He said the State Department's establishment of an office of reconstruction two years ago has helped things move ahead and will continue to be an important factor in meeting future challenges if it's adequately funded.
Buckler also expressed confidence not only in the United States relying on experience to build up similar programs in the future, but also in the continued interest and initiative of the Iraqi people to pass on the lessons they are learning now to future generations.
"There is very much a respect for process (and) government" in Iraq, he explained. "Their idea of government may be more authoritarian than our own, but nonetheless, established authority is something they respect."
Buckler said younger generations employ this high respect for authority and are very accepting of the lessons taught by older generations as they grow up and join the economy and body politic.
Addressing security concerns in the region, Buckler said violence has not really hit Tikrit with the same impact as some regions further south. Bombs, mortar attacks, rocket attacks, and gun fights are a still a pressing concern in the region, but violence with mass casualties has not been a problem, he said.
Buckler said his staff is working closely with Multinational Force Iraq officials to improve the security situation and create a strong tie between the local and provincial governments, trying to help the provincial governments achieve their objectives.
"What the provinces crave now is more authority of their own to hire and fire" he explained. "All the public service work is appointed in Baghdad."
However, he said, the commitment of central government leaders creates a sense of optimism. Noting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's recent visit to the province, Buckler praised the interest of the national leadership and their willingness to participate in open discussion.
"The governor, the deputy governor, a number of sheiks (and) the military ... had a very good exchange with him," Buckler said. "He was very open, communicated with each and every one of them on their particular issues, (and) had his staff there to take notes" on issues requiring follow-up.
Buckler said his team feeds regular updates up the chain of command to report progress and ensure that problems are quickly identified.
"We make sure that whatever happens here does find its way down to our officers in Baghdad," he said.
(Jamie Findlater works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)