U.S. Forces Seek to Cement Gains in Iraq With potential troop drawdowns looming, U.S. commanders and diplomats in Baghdad say security gains will be sustainable only if the Iraqi government moves faster to deliver basic services in areas that have been secured.
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U.S. Forces Seek to Cement Gains in Iraq

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U.S. Forces Seek to Cement Gains in Iraq

U.S. Forces Seek to Cement Gains in Iraq

U.S. Forces Seek to Cement Gains in Iraq

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/88607482/88607461" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Iraq, the biggest challenge facing the United States is persuading the Baghdad government to step up and take more responsibility.

There is a sense of urgency among American diplomats and military commanders because there will never be as many U.S. troops on the ground as there are right now.

The draw down of surge forces is beginning, and the security gains achieved over the past year depend on persuading disaffected Iraqis that they are not being left out.

Bringing Iraqis Together

U.S. Gen. Edward Cardon is a matchmaker of sorts; he tries to bring Iraqis together so they can solve problems on their own. His division, the 3rd Infantry Division, covers an area the size of West Virginia stretching south from Baghdad.

In their year in this area, troops have expended a lot of blood to push out Sunni extremists. Cardon says the Iraqi government has not matched those efforts.

"The government still seems to be moving at a much slower pace than it should be," he says.

On this particular day, Cardon and U.S. troops bring Iraqi officials to see three Sunni communities on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, where al-Qaida was once in control.

Walking the streets, provincial official Abu Kaddar confesses he had never dared come to the area before and, even though it seems very peaceful, he's not sure he would come back without the protection of dozens of American troops.

Kaddar is a Shiite official overseeing this predominantly Sunni area — and he does not have the trust of the people. He was once detained by the U.S. military on suspicion of kidnapping.

Cardon calls his willingness to come to the Arab Jabour area a positive step.

"Nothing is easy here in Iraq," Cardon says. "It's complex and complicated."

Protecting the Area

There are still no government forces in the area. Local Sunnis known as the Sons of Iraq patrol the streets wearing florescent yellow vests. They are recruited and paid for by the Americans, but the U.S. military says this is only a temporary solution.

The United States and the Sunnis want the Shiite-led government to incorporate some of the Sunnis into the police force. But despite U.S. pressure, there has been little response from the government.

Twenty percent of the applicants from this rural agricultural area are illiterate, providing an excuse for the government not to employ them.

U.S. forces, helped by Iraqi employees, have set up make-shift school rooms to remove that excuse. Young men between the ages of 18 and 25 sit at long tables shaded by a tent.

Air Force Capt. Josh Aldridge is astonished at their progress.

"We're using our interpreters. Michael ... is a former chemistry teacher. These guys are really responding to him. Some have graduated basic math because their reading has improved so much in a week," Aldridge says.

Building Skills

Even under the best of circumstances, not everyone will find work in the security forces, so the Americans are trying to prepare the recruits for other kinds of jobs, too.

"We're teaching construction skills, but they need to learn to read and write," Aldridge says. "We're teaching masonry plumbing and electrical work."

This is nuts and bolts stuff. Cardon inspects a pumping station, which depends on electricity to keep irrigation canals full.

"How do we improve electricity and who is responsible it?" he asks.

Cardon asks a local government engineer where he gets his supplies. The engineer says they are from the coalition — not from the government. This is not the answer Cardon wants to hear. He says the government has the money.

Cardon collars provincial officials and makes them talk with the locals about the electricity problems. They sort through the dysfunctional system trying to figure out where it isn't working. They exchange phone numbers.

Transferring Responsibility

Cardon, luckily, is an engineer by training. But Deputy Brigade Commander James Adams is not, and he had to learn the finer points of electricity and pumps fast to get them up and running. He says it's time to get the Iraqi government to take care of the pumps.

"We're going to push them as fast as we can in that direction," he says.

Sheikh Mahjar Sahan al Naemi, a Sunni militia commander, warns of trouble if the government doesn't do more.

"The U.S. is going to leave sooner or later and we will be vulnerable without the troops," he says. "We are calling on the government to provide us with services because we are part of Iraq."

School kids wave in excitement at the sight of Iraqi officials who might pay their teachers their salaries. For now, many teachers are living on donations.

John D. Smith, a State Department reconstruction team leader in this area, says the United States has provided limited funds to refurbish some buildings. But, he says, it has learned not to pour money in unless the government commits to support those projects down the road, with staffing, supplies and repairs.

"That's one thing I learned from my last time here, seeing some actions that took place," Smith says.

On his tours in Iraq, he says, he has seen all too much wasted effort and money.