August 10, 2004


US drains Iraqi swamp - of sewage: In a bid to improve health and goodwill, US engineers are spending $500 million on Baghdad's infrastructure. (Dan Murphy, 8/11/04, CS Monitor)

Kick around Sadr City for a few hours, and the problem seems hopeless. The public housing quarter built in the 1950s to house about 500,000 people now holds five times that many, and its services haven't been updated since.

Flocks of goats and sheep forage on rotting garbage piles in medians and gutters, as pedestrians nimbly detour the frequent pools of fetid water.

Yet on this arrow-straight stretch of road on Sadr City's outskirts, signs of progress are everywhere. The median has just been cleaned by a gang of laborers, paid $5 a day by the US - an above-average wage - in a dual effort to deal with the area's sanitation problems and to get money pumping to the poorest families in a district that has about 50 percent unemployment.

Nearby, a small team of Iraqis are running a pump to drain some of the sewage from the roadside, and Distefano is checking on the progress.

But when he approaches the foreman, who's employed as part of a crash program by the 1st Cavalry Division to spend about $500 million on Baghdad's infrastructure and basic sanitation between now and October, the man doesn't seem happy to see him. His forearms coated with muck and grease, the man says he wants the soldiers out. "The Mahdi Army is paying for this, this is our city,'' he says. "We should be left to take care of our own problems."

Distefano ignores the claim that Sadr's Mahdi Army, not the US, is paying for the work, and asks a few questions. But the foreman isn't very cooperative, and Distefano's men begin to grow nervous as a crowd gathers.

"Captain, this guy here is staring me down,'' says one, almost toe to toe with a hostile young man. "I know, just ignore him,'' Distefano replies, who looks around and adds, "we're going to get mobbed by kids,'' before ordering everyone to mount up and move on.

Doing the right thing in Iraq these days isn't easy, and it seems unlikely to win the US military much credit from alienated populations like the people in Sadr City. A Shiite district, it was systematically deprived of basic services under Hussein's Sunni regime, breeding a surly attitude toward outsiders.

"If you were to overlay a map of where we've had the most enemy contact on one where the services are the worst, they'd match,'' says Lt. Col. Barrett Holmes, the 20th's commander. "There are many people who are frustrated that more progress hasn't been made, but a lot's starting to happen now."

Babylon wasn't devastated in a day.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 10, 2004 7:36 PM

"The Mahdi Army is paying for this, this is our city,'' he says.

One of the requirements for hired locals should be that they know where their paycheck comes from. Tell this bozo to get his check from Mookie.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 10, 2004 8:39 PM

But Bush lied! It is all about oil! It is all about Halliburton!

Isn't it?

Posted by: pchuck at August 10, 2004 10:46 PM

After the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, and moved everyone into the countryside, they distributed rice in burlap sacks that had "Red Cross" and "USA" printed on them in English.

They told everyone it was from Pol Pot.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 11, 2004 9:59 PM

I read somewhere, but don't know whether it was accurate, that Bangkok's sewage system was built by the British and never added to by the Thais even as the city grew by about 10-fold.

Did anybody ask if they wanted this?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 12, 2004 5:20 PM