MELISSA BLOCK, host:
One the biggest challenges facing the U.S. in Iraq now is persuading the Iraqi government to take more responsibility. American diplomats and military commanders feel a sense of urgency because there will never be as many U.S. troops in Iraq as there are right now. The U.S. is beginning to draw down the troops added during the surge.
And NPR's Anne Garrels reports from Baghdad, maintaining the security gains of the past year depends on persuading disaffected Iraqis to play a positive role.
ANNE GARRELS: U.S. General 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 I.D., covers an area the size of West Virginia stretching south from Baghdad.
In their year here, troops have expended a lot of blood to push out Sunni extremists. General Cardon says the Iraqi government has not matched those efforts.
General EDWARD CARDON (U.S. Army): The government still seems to be moving at a much slower pace than it should be.
(Soundbite of people talking)
GARRELS: On this particular day, General 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. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Solomon briefs visitors on progress here.
Lieutenant Colonel MARK SOLOMON (U.S. Army): There certainly is a perception of the government and those that are not from this area that this area is still not secure. That's the purpose of today's visit where you get the higher level governance people and you bring on and you show them. And that's very difficult for them to say it's not secure because you could say, you've walked the streets.
Mr. ABU KADDAR (Provincial Official, Baghdad): (Speaking foreign language)
GARRELS: Walking the streets, provincial official Abu Kaddar confesses he'd never dared come to the area before. And even though it seems very peaceful, he's not sure he would dare come back without the protection of dozens of American troops.
Abu Kaddar is a Shiite official overseeing this predominantly Sunni area, and he does not have the trust of the people here. He was once detained by the U.S. military on suspicion of kidnapping.
Cardon calls his willingness to come today, to the Arab Jabour area, a positive step.
Gen. CARDON: Nothing is easy here in Iraq. It's complex and complicated.
GARRELS: There are still no government forces in the area. The streets here are patrolled by local Sunnis wearing florescent yellow vests, now known as the Sons of Iraq. They are recruited and paid for by the Americans. But the U.S. military says this is only a temporary solution. The U.S. and the Sunnis want the Shiite-led government to incorporate some of the Sunni men into the police force. But despite U.S. pressure, there has been little response from the government, so far.
Twenty percent of the applicants from this rural agricultural area are illiterate, providing an excuse for the government not to employ them.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)
GARRELS: U.S. forces helped by Iraqi employees have set up makeshift schoolrooms to remove that excuse. Young men between 18 and 25 sit at long tables shaded by a tent.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)
GARRELS: Air Force Captain Josh Aldridge is astonished at their progress.
Captain JOSH ALDRIDGE (U.S. Air Force): We're using our interpreters. Michael there is a former chemistry teacher. These guys are really responding to him. Some of them have actually graduated to basic math class because their reading has improved so much in less than a week.
GARRELS: 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.
Capt. ALDRIDGE: We're teaching them construction skills and to - in order to finish our course, they got to learn to read and write. So the next tent is basic math and the tent over there is advanced math. So these - all these skills are like a foundation for our course where we're teaching masonry, plumbing and electrical work. So...
GARRELS: This is nuts and bolts stuff, literally. General Cardon inspects a pumping station which depends on electricity to keep irrigation canals full.
Gen. EDWARD CARDON: How do we improve electricity in this area and who's responsible for it?
GARRELS: He asked a local government engineer where he gets his supplies.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)
GARRELS: The answer: from the coalition, not the government. And it's not the answer Cardon wants to hear.
Gen. CARDON: Because they have the money.
GARRELS: But it's the same answer again and again. 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.
(Soundbite of moving vehicle)
Gen. CARDON: Just that alone may be enough to fix this whole thing here in terms of supplies. If we just fix that, it would be a good day.
GARRELS: Cardon luckily is an engineer by training. Deputy Brigade Commander James Adams is not and had to learn the finer points of electricity and pumps fast to get them up and running. He said it's now time to get the Iraqi government to take care of those pumps.
Commander JAMES ADAMS (U.S. Army): We're going to push them as fast as we can in that direction.
GARRELS: Sheikh Mahjar Sahan al Naemi, a Sunni militia commander, warns of trouble if the Iraqi government doesn't do more to provide services.
Sheikh MAHJAR SAHAN AL NAEMI (Sunni Militia Commander): (Through translator) The U.S. is going to leave sooner or later and we will be vulnerable without the troops. We are calling on the government to provide us with services because we are part of Iraq.
(Soundbite of kids yelling)
GARRELS: Schoolkids wave in excitement at the sight of Iraqi officials who might just 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 U.S. is providing only limited funds to refurbish some buildings like schools and clinics. It's learned not to pour in money unless the government commits to support those projects down the road with staffing, supplies and repairs. And anyway, money is running out.
Mr. JOHN D. SMITH (Leader, State Department Reconstruction Team): And that's one thing that I learned from the last time that I was here, seeing some of the actions that took place.
GARRELS: In his tours here, Smith has seen all too much wasted effort and wasted money.
Ann Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.
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