By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 13, 2008 - A senior U.S. diplomat and an Army civil affairs officer teamed up in Iraq last year to aid local development and stabilization efforts in Salahuddin province. State Department minister-counselor Steve Buckler and Capt. Laura Peters arrived in Iraq in February 2007. During their one-year tour in Salahuddin province, they worked together to coordinate meetings among senior Iraqi government officials at the national, provincial and local levels, local tribal leaders, and the regional provincial reconstruction team.
Buckler led the provincial reconstruction team in Salahuddin, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. The group worked with Iraqi leaders, he said, to assist in organizing governance and aiding economic development programs, including jobs training and employment opportunities.
Buckler said his 45-member crew consisted of members of the Defense and State and Agriculture departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"We worked primarily on governance," Buckler said during a recent interview at the Pentagon. Peters, he said, was the liaison officer for the local brigade combat team and the PRT. For her efforts in Iraq, he said, Peters received the State Department's Superior Honor Award.
Peters first worked with the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team during her duty tour, she said, and she joined the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team after the 82nd's contingent departed.
"One of my roles for the brigade was also to be the direct liaison between the brigade combat team leaders and our [Iraqi] provincial leaders, our governor, the deputy governor and the sheiks," Peters explained. Peters, who accompanied Buckler at the Pentagon interview, noted that she and Buckler used experienced interpreters during meetings with Iraqi officials.
Key to civil affairs' philosophy, Peters said, is being sensitive to host-country cultural issues, establishing trust with local officials and "understanding how to design projects that are effective, that are not just band-aids."
It was apparent in early 2007 that the relationships and communications among Iraqi government officials in Baghdad and Tikrit -- Salahuddin's provincial capital –- and the province's municipal and tribal leaders "were either poor or nonexistent," Buckler recalled.
"We tried to work very hard on getting the Iraqi municipal and provincial authorities to work together," he said, "because if they're not working to spend the money and get the services out there, the citizenry is left to fend for itself." Such a situation, Buckler pointed out, provides insurgents an opportunity to step in to fill the void.
However, the PRT acted quickly to get Iraqi authorities talking to one another, Buckler said. Peters and her brigade combat team were especially helpful in making that happen, he continued, by arranging transportation and meetings between Iraqi government officials in Baghdad and authorities in Tikrit.
Those meetings, Buckler said, helped to bridge initial mistrust between the Shiite-centric national government in Baghdad and Sunni authorities in Salahuddin.
Tikrit is the hometown of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Peters said. During his reign, Saddam provided choice positions to his fellow Sunnis, while he persecuted the country's Shiite-majority population. After Saddam's fall from power in 2003, Sunni leaders, especially those in Salahuddin, came to believe that they were being ignored by the new national government in Baghdad, Peters said.
Peters said she and Buckler urged provincial and municipal authorities to advocate for their citizens' interests by meeting with their Baghdad counterparts.
"So, you start by making sure that they're getting out to seeing their own cities and also communicating the needs" of constituents to Baghdad, Peters explained.
Iraqi officials from Salahuddin province began flying down to Baghdad to present their needs to national government authorities, Peters said. Later on, she said, senior national government officials in Baghdad began visiting the province to meet with provincial and municipal officials.
"That was a big 'win,'" Peters recalled, noting U.S. diplomatic officials, including Buckler, helped to convince Baghdad authorities to make the trips.
Local Iraqi officials welcomed Baghdad authorities to their homes and proudly showed off what Tikrit and Salahuddin had to offer, Peters recalled.
As a result of those meetings, an jointly funded Iraqi-U.S. program was established, Peters said, providing vocational training to "Sons of Iraq" citizen security group members so they can transition to civilian jobs such as positions at oil refineries and fertilizer plants.
Buckler said he observed scant evidence of sectarian tensions during meetings between Shiite and Sunni officials.
"To watch them interact with one another ... they are very warm and hospitable," the diplomat said of the meetings. "Sometimes all that it takes is getting them all in the same room.
"I wouldn't call it 'magic,' but it worked very effectively," the senior diplomat said.