With the GIs in Diyala
A convoy of three Humvees drives fast from Warhorse to downtown Baquba--on and off the shoulder, into the median, cutting brilliantly between cars and traffic jams at checkpoints with inches to spare. The window to my left, a couple inches thick, has spiderwebs in it from guerrilla gunshots. The gunner on top of the Humvee hasn't come up with anything better for clearing traffic than shouting "Get the hell out the way!" and waving his nontrigger hand wildly, but most of the locals seem to know the drill by now and move as quickly as they can for fear of being shot as a suspected car bomber.
I am dropped off at the Civil Military-Operations Center, where about 200 3BCT soldiers are stationed in a renovated compound that formerly belonged to the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police. At the CMOC, Iraqis can make claims for compensation from the US military. It is also the nerve center for reconstruction projects in the province overseen by the Third Division, currently valued at $212 million.
"It only costs $25,000 to rebuild a bridge, and that makes people happy as hell," Salazar says. "A lot of money's being spent on reconstruction." But, he adds, "it hasn't been well spent and it hasn't been spent fast enough." The difficulty, says Maj. Ed House, 3BCT's brigade operations officer, is "literally finding enough Iraqi contractors to do the job." Another project is supplying equipment for the Iraqi police and the military. Salazar says it was only a few months ago that the central government began paying police officers from Interior Ministry coffers. The problem is an indicator of how far the central government has to go and how inconsistent reconstruction efforts have been across the country. In Baquba the First Infantry Division outfitted the Diyala police with computers and a high-tech control room similar to the military's own tactical operations center. At the Interior Ministry most offices still don't even have a computer.
The CMOC is 200 yards from the city's former Baath Party headquarters, where the provincial government now meets, but the troops make the trip from the CMOC in armored Humvees, weapons ready. At the government building a meeting of local leaders is taking place with the outgoing governor of the province, Abdullah Rashid al-Jabouri. The sheiks stand up one by one to address their problems. Baquba residents say the most pressing complaint is that most recruits of the new Iraqi Army in Diyala are drawn from the Dawa Party and the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. (Dawa and SCIRI are the two most powerful Shiite parties in the country.) "They harass Sunnis," one man complains.
Jabouri addresses their concerns, but for the US military, he is a bit of a concern himself. After filing late to run in the provincial election, he was disqualified, but it is unclear whether he will step down. Before a meeting between Jabouri and the incoming provincial council on March 20, Salazar sits down with the governor. He emerges a half-hour later and the transfer of power takes place.
"I think he knew it was up," Salazar says. "I just encouraged him to start preparing for the December elections." At a lunch with Salazar at Warhorse the previous week, more than 200 local tribal sheiks delivered a letter warning of violence if Jabouri was forced to step down. Eight of the outgoing council's members were assassinated. All were Shiites--members of either Dawa or SCIRI. The military is concerned that Jabouri, a formerly exiled Sunni, might incite violence against the incoming government if he is not part of it. (There is also ethnic tension in the northern part of the province resulting from Kurdish resettlement of areas they were evicted from by Saddam in the 1980s.)
"I have been more involved [in politics] than I would like to be," Salazar says. "I have made no decisions for them, but I have helped coach them against making bad decisions that could lead to more violence. This might be the first peaceful transfer of government anywhere in the country." Salazar is exaggerating to some extent; by that point, several other provincial councils had been turned over, though in all of them the incumbent governor had kept his seat.