American Forces Press Service
Aug. 10, 2009 - The area around the Al Askari "Golden" Mosque of Samarra, Iraq, once thrived as an open-air market serving thousands of visitors every year. Iraqi and U.S. forces are working to guarantee security, and that means more than safety. It also means rebuilding the economy. Joined by Samarra Mayor Mahmood Khalaf Ahmed, U.S. soldiers with the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion and the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, distributed $2.5 million in small-business grants to more than 900 local store owners Aug. 3 to 5.
Following the bombing of the Golden Mosque in February 2006, business plummeted. Some shops shut down due to security concerns and the placement of protective barriers around the city.
"The closure of the stores around the Golden Mosque truly hurt the economy of Samarra," Ahmed said. "Many of the visitors to the city would come and shop and provide the much-needed money for the city. With these microgrants, we will be able to return being the strong, economic city that we were in previous years."
The Iraqi government and U.S. forces have allocated millions of dollars in grants for small-business owners, and to those who wish to become small-businesses owners, to revitalize the economy. The grants ranged from $2,500 to $10,000.
More than 900 store owners whose businesses suffered from the attack, were placed on a list by the Samarra government. The list gave in-depth information about the type of business and the amount of money each store would need. The list was given to the mayor and U.S. forces to put together a scheduled plan for payments.
"The U.S. forces and the mayor of Samarra provided these microgrants right on time," Bashar Abd Al Razzaq Khalaf, a Samarra clothing store owner, explained. "This city will benefit from the reopening of many of the stores here, and cause a circular flow of funds to restore Samarra."
Soldiers sat down with store owners and marveled at the strides made through the combined effort of the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
"Seeing that we were able to come to a government center in Iraq, sit down with the Iraqi people and conduct these payments in a safe and peaceful manner ... shows how far we have come," said Army Maj. Wendy Weinell, 490th Civil Affairs team leader.
Army Lt. Col. Sam Whitehurst, commander of 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, spoke to a crowd of store owners prior to the payments to acknowledge the sacrifices Samarra residents have made.
"We have been able to serve the people of the city due to our close relationship to the local government in Samarra," he said. "I had the pleasure of speaking to many citizens in Samarra, and have grown to know the sacrifices they have made. ... We want to recognize their sacrifices with our efforts to rebuild Samarra."
Army Brig. Gen. James Nixon, Multinational Division North's deputy commanding general for operations, met with Whitehurst to explore the area around the Golden Mosque and talk to local business owners Aug 2. They met one business owner who already had received a microgrant from the government. Bassam Ahmed started a very popular chai café in the once-thriving merchant area.
Ahmed was excited to meet with Nixon, and they talked about everything from the security of the city to how they can help improve the local economy.
"The customers who visit my café speak mostly of the security of the city," Ahmed said. "They speak good things about what the U.S. forces have done in the city, and I am not just saying that because you are sitting here."
One citizen said investing money in Samarra is one part of the solution; the other is to tear down barriers resembling war in the city.
"I think removing the T-walls will be a great way to help improve the looks of the city, and help bring the community together," said Fahmoud Ahked, when asked by Whitehurst how he felt about removing the barriers from around the mosque.
Bassam thanked U.S. forces for giving him a chance to start his chai business. He plans to install doors and windows so that he may continue to serve the community throughout the winter months.
"The U.S. forces and the Samarra government have been operating in partnership and have identified that unemployment is a big issue in Samarra," Weinell said. "If we can start to grow the businesses even a little at a time, this will lead to more jobs and drop the unemployment rate in the city."