- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

President Bush will speak today by videoconference with members of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad, part of the administration’s effort to draw more notice to local political progress, one of the success stories in Iraq that the White House sees as underreported.

The virtual meeting with the group is part of a White House effort to better publicize the “diplomatic surge” that accompanied the addition of 30,000 combat troops over the past year.

A key element of the Bush administration’s “surge” was a change in political strategy to rely more on local progress and less on national government unity. While the central government in Baghdad has made limited progress, the military surge has paid dividends, and local political progress has taken off in some parts of Iraq.

But the level of reconciliation has been a hard sell to news outlets, said a top State Department official.

“It’s the kind of thing that happens slowly and doesn’t produce dramatic moments. That’s what we’ve struggled with,” said Barbara Stephenson, deputy coordinator for Iraq at the State Department.

The job of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) is to “bring Iraqis together, make meetings happen, and [the Iraqis] bring consensus.”

“It doesn’t photograph well. And that’s been a challenge,” Mrs. Stephenson said. “It’s profound in its ramifications, but it’s hard to make a good story because it’s about building processes.”

There are 24 PRTs in Iraq, ranging in size from six or seven persons to the largest in Baghdad, which numbers about 100. About half of the 600 or so PRT personnel are State Department employees, and the rest are foreign diplomats or Iraqi nationals. There were about 300 PRT personnel in Iraq at the beginning of last year, said Mrs. Stephenson, a career Foreign Service officer.

Most of the extra PRT personnel were embedded with U.S. combat teams and worked to help local communities rebuild infrastructure and institutions. The decision to lean more heavily on local reconciliation marked a shift in White House policy that one former administration official said went largely unnoticed, while most media attention and public discussion centered on the troop increase.

The first PRTs were installed in November 2005 in four Iraqi cities: Kirkuk, Nineveh, Babel and Baghdad. In summer 2006, the State Department helped Britain set up a PRT in Basra, the South Koreans in Erbil, and the Italians in Dikar.

In November 2006, just before the president announced his surge, PRTs started to focus primarily on helping Iraqi provinces execute budgets, so that they could receive money from the central government and properly distribute it.

“Everything we see as normal aspects of government function is sort of being learned relatively late,” said one senior State Department official involved with Iraq affairs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Mrs. Stephenson said, “people described [budgets] as bags of money from Saddam.”

The PRTs embedded with combat brigades have also worked to set up microloans for small businesses, a White House spokeswoman said.

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