BAGHDAD | From a small compound in northeast Baghdad, U.S. troops are taking tiny steps to rebuild an economy shattered by war.
Their target is al-Beidha’a, a community of cinderblock homes, apartment buildings and potholed streets close to Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces in April and May fought pitched battles against gunmen of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian-influenced “special groups” militias.
The U.S. is offering “microgrants” to strengthen and expand small businesses, help create jobs and invigorate the community. The effort also allows troops to expand personal interaction with Iraqis as they conduct meetings and surveys to find appropriate recipients.
“It isn’t a free-money program,” said Capt. Clint Rusch, who oversees the microgrant project of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment, which is attached to the 1st Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment. “We’re not giving away money. We’re here helping people to get the technology and equipment they need to do better business.
“Better business means more jobs, more money in the community, and working for terrorists to feed families no longer an alternative.”
The microgrant project - part of the hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency campaign instituted by Gen. David H. Petraeus - comes under the U.S. Army’s Commander Emergency Response Program (CERP).
CERP provides commanders with authority to spend money to rectify pressing reconstruction and humanitarian needs in their battle space, such as repairing schools and homes damaged in fighting, fixing broken water pipes and reopening health facilities.
There are two types of CERP, and two sources of money being used in Iraq today. The first is U.S. CERP. About $27 million has been allocated to commanders in Baghdad for projects, according to figures from the 4th Infantry Division.
The second is an Iraqi-funded CERP - about $81 million, which is used for infrastructure projects U.S. commanders identify and approve in cooperation with the Iraqi army and central and local government.
The microgrants, however, are strictly American.
Iraqi officials “would like their money to be spent on schools, clinics, road repair, sewerage repair and items like that,” said Col. John Hort, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. “We take that and apply that money to those major areas. And then we look at the peripheral areas.
“That’s what I would call hard U.S. dollars going into a local business so that [the business owner] can regenerate that shop and make it a better place and employ more people.”
“The way ahead here is more economic and essential services,” he explained.
Al-Beidha’a, with a population of about 122,000, is administratively a sector of the Adhamiya district of northeast Baghdad. It sits at the crossroads between Adhamiya and Sadr City. Adhamiya is mainly Sunni, but several sectors - including al-Beidha’a - are predominantly Shi’ite.
Microgrants are for a maximum of $2,500. Since the program was started in June, Charlie Company grant nominations have totaled about $375,000, Capt. Rusch said. About 60 percent of the nominations are for $2,000 or less. Only about 10 percent have so far been paid - the rest are still in the review-approval-disbursement pipeline at the brigade and division level.
“Allison. Allison, my friend. Welcome, welcome,” Faris Hassan Jabber said with a broad smile.
Mr. Jabber proudly showed Capt. Allison the carved upper-back frame of a sofa he had just produced and the work started on another piece of furniture. On the wall behind him was an 8-by-10-inch photograph of Mr. Jabber shaking hands with the American officer.
Mr. Jabber was the first business owner to get microgrant funding in al-Beidha’a, and Capt. Allison was the soldier who made it happen.
When Capt. Allison first visited, Mr. Jabber was working with just one saw, a plane and a few other hand tools. Other saws and attachments on his carpentry station had long ceased to function and the furniture maker was having a difficult time supporting his family of five.
With funds from the microgrant, $500 of his own money and trading in the decrepit machine table, Mr. Jabber purchased a fully functioning secondhand one.
“Business is better,” he said through an interpreter. “I have two people working for me now. The quality of my work is better, and I can use harder woods,” he said.
Next door to Mr. Jabber, an upholsterer uses a staple gun to attach cushioning and fabric onto a furniture frame made by Mr. Jabber.
The staple gun was fired with the use of a compressor that was powered by a $1,200 generator funded by a microgrant.
The generator is used by all the half-dozen businessmen on the street to power equipment and to supply lighting when city power isn’t available, which can be for hours each working day. One hour of city power for every three hours of blackout is considered a good day.
Like Mr. Jabber, the upholsterer has hired additional workers.
A metal craftsman down the road who used to fashion gates, guardrails and trimming with only a few hand tools has seen customer orders increase as his work improves.
He credits a microgrant that helped him purchase additional tools and an acetylene torch unit for smoother, more intricate shaping.
Speaking through an interpreter, he said he had hired workers also. And as with all grant recipients, he’ll later take on vocational apprentices from an anticipated program to give job training to neighborhood guards who don’t join the ranks of the Iraqi army or police.
Mr. Jabber and his Taribiyah neighborhood weren’t chosen to be the first to get the grants by accident, Capt. Allison said. “The people of Taribiyah all work in Taribiyah, and they shop in Taribiyah. Helping these businesses has a direct impact on the community.”
Capt. Allison, like Capt. Rusch, is not a civil-affairs officer. The former is an armor officer; the latter is an artilleryman. But like many other soldiers in Iraq today, they are performing functions that are not their military specialty as hearts-and-minds initiatives replace, at least temporarily, kinetic combat.
That daily, intense fighting ended in northeastern Baghdad in late May, and the relative peace is considered frail. Gunmen who retreated into northern Sadr City have mostly gone into hiding, fled or disbanded following a cease-fire agreement with the government.
But sporadic violence by Shi’ite holdouts and Sunni terrorists continues to threaten neighborhoods like Taribiyah.
“Captain: The clock’s on, 15 minutes and counting,” a soldier named Delacruz yelled out to Capt. Allison. “The people are taking off.”
Capt. Allison and men of Red Platoon were at a roundabout where al-Beidha’a and Sadr City meet.
Capt. Allison had stopped to chat with store owners on the al-Beidha’a side of a main thoroughfare and scout out vacant billboards for putting up signs picturing wanted terrorists and asking for information.
Street vendors and others at the roundabout moved away when Red Platoon rolled up - a sign to U.S. forces and local residents that a gunman was in the area.
“We figure it takes about 15 minutes for a sniper to be told we’re around and then for him to get to a point and set up for a shot,” a soldier said. “We don’t hang around any longer than we have to.”
Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, along main roads remain a threat, although much less so than before.
But the hearts-and-minds beat still goes on.
“People who have a tangible stake in peace and stability, and recognize it, may be less inclined to tolerate or help those who would disrupt it,” Capt. Allison said.