Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could have had the Mississippi Army National Guard’s 155th Brigade Combat Team in mind this week when he bemoaned the lack of balanced press coverage of Iraq.
Wrapping up one year in Iraq, the brigade has worked without much publicity to turn the war-ravaged city of Najaf and surrounding areas into relatively hospitable enclaves.
Najaf, home to one of Shi’ite Muslims’ most holy shrines, and nearby Karbala, are now run by Iraqis. Babil Province, the 155th’s other geographic assignment, is still plagued by violence, but overall attacks are down.
Yesterday, the Pentagon produced one of the Army officers who had a lot to do with the Najaf-Karbala resurgence as part of a counteroffensive to rebut the public’s perception that too little progress has been made in Iraq.
“We’ve worked very close with the citizens of Iraq to try and make a better way of life for them,” the brigade’s commander, Brig. Gen. Augustus L. Collins, told reporters at the Pentagon via a teleconference.
Gen. Collins seemed just as pleased with his soldiers’ community projects as he was with their more than 500 combat missions and the capture of 1,500-plus foreign terrorists and Iraqi insurgents.
Gen. Collins listed a number of good deeds:
The renovation of 49 schools and the import of 26,000 backpacks full of pens, paper and rulers. “I gave the order that each company would adopt at least one school,” the general said.
The building of health clinics where the brigade’s doctors and dentists provided care.
The reopening of Najaf’s teaching hospital, which was looted and wrecked by Shi’ite militants. Now, the hospital treats 400 patients daily.
The reconstruction of Najaf’s soccer stadium, where 20,000 fans watched an inaugural game between Baghdad and a local team.
President Bush singled out Najaf this week as one of Iraq’s bustling new cities. Such a designation was hard to imagine more than a year ago, when firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirred up a revolution, funded by Iranian money, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
Najaf is also home to a key coalition ally and Iraq’s top Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. Ayatollah al-Sistani has endorsed the election process that is likely to put the majority Shi’ites in charge of Baghdad next Thursday, when voters chose a permanent parliament.
Gen. Collins formally handed over Najaf to the Iraqis in September.
“Najaf is a city that’s on the move,” he said.
“A lot of the buildings down there were abandoned,” Gen. Collins said of an October 2004 visit to the city. “I was in some of those same places recently and it’s entirely different now. The buildings have been renovated. The markets are open. There are people on the street.”
Because of Najaf’s importance to devout Shi’ites and to the coalition, it can expect to stay on the target list of Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi and his al Qaeda in Iraq suicide bombers.