Well-Meaning Projects Stir Contempt in Iraq The Army touts its programs for establishing good will in Iraqi villages, such as paying villagers to collect trash in their neighborhoods. The experience of one patrol shows how a well-meaning project can engender hostility and mutual contempt between villagers and soldiers.
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Well-Meaning Projects Stir Contempt in Iraq

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Well-Meaning Projects Stir Contempt in Iraq

Well-Meaning Projects Stir Contempt in Iraq

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The current U.S. strategy in Iraq includes a number of small projects designed to boost local economies. They're also supposed to build rapport between Iraqis and American soldiers. U.S. commanders say the projects have helped decrease violence in the area south of Baghdad - a region that used to be known as the Triangle of Death.

But, winning hearts and minds can be difficult. As NPR's Corey Flintoff found on a recent visit to a village.

COREY FLINTOFF: It seems simple enough. Soldiers from the 189 Cavalry have come to al-Qadisiya to build good relations and inject a little cash into a desperately poor village.

Captain J.R. Hong(ph) calls out the plan.

Captain J.R. HONG (189 Cavalry, U.S. Army): Spread the news.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay.

Captain HONG: One bag of trash equals to $10. We'll collect it and we'll burn it. Okay?

Unidentified Man #1: Okay. Okay.

FLINTOFF: Ten dollars is a lot of money in a place where most people have no jobs. It's about an average day's wage for an Iraqi government worker all for filling just one garden-sized trash bag.

DAVE (Interpreter): (Iraqi spoken)

FLINTOFF: The interpreter, called Dave by the soldiers, describes this bonanza to a man who loiters in the shade of a battered sheet metal kiosk. The man smiles ingratiatingly showing uneven smoke-stained teeth. So his response comes as a surprise.

Unidentified Man #2: (Iraqi spoken)

DAVE: He said it is not really our job to pick up the garbage. He say our jobs is just to put security, so - I will try to convince him.

FLINTOFF: The not-my-job line raises the hackles of 1st Sergeant David Richardson(ph).

First Sergeant DAVID RICHARDSON (U.S. Army): We're not going to convince him of anything. We're telling him, all right, that we're giving an opportunity here for this people to make some money.

FLINTOFF: But Dave, the interpreter, has mistranslated. The man is actually saying that he doesn't have the authority to agree to the trash-collecting scheme. He wants to call somebody with more clout.

First Sergeant RICHARDSON: If they don't want it, they don't want to earn a little money, just tell him he can go (censored by network). They would just won't get our money.

FLINTOFF: A crowd is gathering in the narrow lane where four American Humvees are lined up, engines running, soldiers perched wearily in their turrets behind 50 caliber machine guns.

The villager, who has become a de facto spokesman, is warming up to the argument.

DAVE: He say they need somebody responsible here so we can make a deal with him.

First Sergeant RICHARDSON: Are we going to stay into this or are we going to leave? Because I want to show him the money before we leave. I just want to show him what a dumb ass he is.

Unidentified Man #3: (Iraqi spoken)

FLINTOFF: Grinning boys are listening in and they're showing a definite interest in the trash bags. Sergeant Richardson.

First Sergeant RICHARDSON: So what? The kids are going to do the work and they are going to take the money?

FLINTOFF: Captain Hong watches as children stuff trash and weeds into the plastic bags while the men smoke and complain to him about their lack of health care, fuel, and clean drinking water.

Captain HONG: It seems to be the norm. The kids seem to do most of the work, I mean, there's no doubt that they'll probably get paid and then they'll give it to their parents. But, I don't know, it might be cultural or it might be status wise. But it seems to be the norm around here.

FLINTOFF: Captain Hong rejects the word frustrating when it comes to describing his relationship with the villagers.

Captain HONG: After a while, you kind of start to understand how they work and that's our job really to adapt to the culture here and kind of get the job done however we see fit.

Unidentified Man #4: (Iraqi spoken)

Captain HONG: Two, three…

FLINTOFF: A few hours later, hundreds of bags are thrown into a hole doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Rank smoke grills back into the villages, people line up at the kiosk to be paid.

First Sergeant RICHARDSON: Tell them to line up or I ain't giving them no money.

FLINTOFF: The soldiers take names and pass out stiff, new ten-dollar bills.

DAVE: Hussein Ali Abbas(ph).

First Sergeant RICHARDSON: Tell him to sign for him and his daughter. Explain to these people, unless they want to be shot, to move back.

FLINTOFF: And that it seems is what this is all about. Soldiers do what soldiers do. They're trained to be forceful to get results. Villagers do what villagers do. They try to get the maximum advantage from an unpredictable source of bounty and they try to do it within the structures they understand -the family and their tribe.

In terms of numbers - hundreds of bags of trash and dozens of villagers paid -the patrol's mission seems to have been accomplished. The village is slightly cleaner. But it seems unlikely that civic pride will keep it that way. The residents have some very easy money. And while that may promote cooperation, it's unclear whether hearts or minds have been won on either side.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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