By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 13, 2008 - A senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq visited Babil province Aug. 6-7 to meet with military and civilian leaders. Gordon Gray, senior advisor on southern Iraq to Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, met with U.S. and Iraqi security forces commanders and community leaders as part of a series of visits to all parts of southern Iraq.
Gray said the purpose of his visits was to hear from provincial reconstruction team members, to learn what the security challenges are in the area and to learn how PRTs and the military work together. He also sought the opinions and concerns of Iraqi leaders about matters ranging from security, shortages and unemployment to the upcoming elections.
In addition to his visits with soldiers and Iraqi commanders, Gray met with leaders in Jurf as Sahkr and Iskandariyah, where he toured an outdoor market.
Babil province has enjoyed relative peace in recent months, as Iraqi security forces have established a greater presence and conducted several joint operations with coalition forces.
"The reduction in violence did not just come as a gift," said Maj. Gen. Fadhil Radid Khahum al-Sultani, Babil provincial director of police. He gave credit for the reduction in sectarian violence and defeat of insurgent cells to the Iraqi police working closely with the Iraqi army and coalition forces.
Others cited the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security program as a major influence in recent gains. Of concern to many local leaders, however, is the issue of how to transition members of the program into the Iraqi security forces.
Sheik Hameed, Jurf as Sakhr's Sons of Iraq leader, said promises were made to hire group members into the army and police, and though many Sons of Iraq have been hired in other provinces, none has secured employment so far in Babil.
Army Lt. Col. Timothy Newsome, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, said coalition forces have assisted the Sons of Iraq by submitting more than 3,000 applications to the Iraqi government, but he acknowledged that, to date, no Babil applicant had secured a job in the army or police force.
"The SoI members keep demanding [jobs with the Iraqi security forces] because that will solve the problem with unemployment," Hameed said.
"I think it makes sense to [bring Sons of Iraq into the security forces], because it's a force for stability," Gray said. "The employment advantages are obvious, but also, if you have volunteers, that only strengthens the security forces."
The foremost topic in meetings was upcoming elections. Gray said it is important for local leaders to encourage participation when the election does take place.
"From a policy perspective, we don't want to see any delay," Gray said. "Iraq is a new enough democracy that they need practice [in elections]. Another reason is we had seen the Sunnis sit out the  elections, so it's important that this go-around they participate, and that all of the people of Iraq participate."
Newsome suggested that some Iraqis may be disillusioned with the democratic process, as some candidates voted into office in the last election have been unable to provide services to citizens quickly enough.
"My very strong impression -- not just from this trip but in other visits -- is that people are dissatisfied with the performance of the local governments and want to address that through the elections," Gray said. "Part of [voter turnout] will depend on the quality of the candidates. If they are attractive candidates with attractive platforms, it will lead to a greater voter turnout."
One way of encouraging higher turnouts, Gray said, may be the involvement of tribal leaders in helping to put forth candidates who represent local citizens' interests. Candidates affiliated with tribes, if elected, could form a loose coalition to strengthen their cause, he explained. In meetings with local sheiks, he urged them to use their influence as community leaders, as they did in organizing Sons of Iraq groups, by becoming political leaders, as well.
Gray also met with members of the Babil Provincial Reconstruction Team, a U.S. State Department group that works with the military to improve Iraq's infrastructure and governance with programs ranging from agricultural assistance to the forming of town councils.
"There is so much overlap in finding solutions to problems, it's no longer as discrete as it once was," Gray said, referring to the close relationship between the military and the State Department. "Civil-military or diplomatic-military cooperation is essential, and it's the wave of the future."
Several successful programs in Babil province, such as initiatives to help local fish farmers, may be easily replicated in other parts of the country, Gray said.
Gray praised the efforts of PRTs, but added that more needs to be done to involve the Iraqi government in reconstruction projects.
"My sense is that the [Iraqi government] is not spending money quickly," he said. "I would think there would be more effort to fund programs."
Gordon acknowledged the Iraqi government has a huge budget surplus, but he added that "it's always a danger to analyze things in the Middle East using America as a context."
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves in the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)