HUSAYBAH, Iraq -- It’s a sunny day in western Iraq. American weathermen would describe it as an “unseasonably warm” December day with the temperature somewhere in the low 70s. The Marines from 6th Civil Affairs Group, out of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., are spending the day reviewing condolence claims, meeting with city officials and checking on the status of civil-military projects here.
Census data is nearly nonexistent here, so counting ration card issuances is the only reliable means to get a population tally. Husbayah is a small-sized Iraqi city with a population of just over 40,000.
Even so, there are a lot of children. This is made plain just by driving through the narrow, dusty streets as children pop from behind every gate and door asking for soccer balls.
It is not uncommon to see families with up to ten children, said Lt. Col. Robert Glover, director, Al Qaim regional Civil-Military Operations Center.
It is no surprise then that there are eight schools here. Even more if you count “advanced” and technical education institutes.
Unfortunately, after insurgents infiltrate and used the buildings, including schools, as bases from which to launch attacks on coalition forces, most of the schools were either damaged or completely destroyed during Operation Steel Curtain. These damaged schools are a center of gravity for the CAG’s activity, a highly-visible yardstick by which to measure the degree of the community’s recuperation.
“Education is the key,” said Glover. “If you can get the kids in school, everything else – work ethic, enterprise, knowledge – comes from that.”
“The students, teachers and parents have to clean the schools,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Williams, the operations officer for the Al Qaim regional CMOC to the assembled Iraqis.
This declaration is a necessity, said Williams.
“If you don’t tell the Iraqis certain things that need to be done, in some cases they won’t do anything at all,” he said from the combat operations center in the converted youth center the CAG and its security element, Marines from Company L, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, use as a headquarters. “We’re trying to get them to do as much reconstruction on their own as we can, while we wait for funding and assistance from the Iraqi Ministry of Education.”
Seated around the table at the meeting were a school principal and three local leaders. The principal brought his notes in something any high school student would recognize: a green pocket folder. He is wearing a plain brown suit and colorful shirt with no tie, standing out in contrast to the other men, wearing red checkered or white headbands signifying their standing in their tribe. Speaking little English, he communicates through a translator the Marines call “Mike.”
Right now school supplies are a big issue. The CAG doesn’t have any and getting them from the regional Ministry of Education office in Ramadi is difficult due to security concerns. Local supplies aren’t being produced either.
“We called the bookstore for supplies, but they’re out,” said the principal.
Williams explained the Americans were working on a convoy from here to Ramadi to bring the supplies back for the school. This elicits a smile and a nod.
With the supplies issue as resolved as it can be at this time, there is good news to report. All of the teachers plus an assistant principal are back at work. Additionally, Williams reports that the bank is close to re-opening and they will soon receive pay for their services again -- no small victory. Getting the financial system back on its feet means a place to store money other than the cookie jar or under the mattress, as well as a central repository from which to pay city workers. This will make it much easier to hire workers to rebuild around infrastructures around the town, including the schools.
The first school Glover’s patrol stops at isn’t very promising. The gates are locked and a local boy volunteers to climb over the gate and unlatch the lock, permitting the Marines entry. The classrooms are unused: the chalkboards are blank; the desks are askew and crammed together; the doors on many of the rooms are locked altogether.
“Does this look like it’s been used lately to you?” Glover asked of Williams.
“No, sir,” he replied.
The next school looks a little better, with a few of the classrooms obviously having been used recently. There are lessons on the board, even one in English. There are children playing with rocks in the courtyard, so Glover sends a Marine to get them a soccer ball.
The final school visit is worlds apart from the other two. There are children and teachers everywhere. Glover’s patrol is greeted with smiles, handshakes and “as salaam aleikum” from numerous teachers and the principal. A bag with a few soccer balls is brought along to give to the headmaster. When Glover asks him how many more he’ll need, he says as many as the Marines will give him.
“No, you need to come up with a number to tell us,” said Glover.
It is an important point for the Marines, who place a lot of value in getting the Iraqis to make their own decisions without looking to the Americans to make them for them. But also, it’s an important litmus test, said Williams.
“That’s how we know if a man is honest. If he says, ‘I need ten more soccer balls,’ we know he’s probably got an ulterior motive,” Williams said. “But if he says, ‘I am grateful for whatever you can give,’ he’s probably honest.”
Civil affairs functions as the mediators for Iraqi independence. They function as a link between the Operation Iraqi Freedom way of doing things, which is coming to the Americans and other coalition forces for help, and the sovereign way of doing things. By encouraging the Iraqis to rebuild their own infrastructure, value education and make their own decisions, civil affairs weans them from government aid and puts them on track for independence and self-reliance.
Glover and his team packs up and climb back into their vehicles. Their work and review in the city done for today. There is much more work to do for the foreseeable future, especially with elections only a week away. Between now and then, more meetings, more reviews and more facilitation for the Iraqis in the Al Qaim region. But for today, this warm and sunny December day any American weatherman would call “unseasonably warm,” that work is done.