October 26, 2007


Marines declare war on garbage: With Ramadi now quiet, troops turn to waste collection as a way to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. (Tina Susman, 10/26/07, Los Angeles Times)

Now, instead of worrying about roadside bombs, they worry about puddles.

"That's a new one!" Falk said as he walked down Ramadi's main drag. Water gurgled from beneath the sand. The tiny ripples were a sign of a leaking underground pipe, and Falk made a note to alert the city's sewage manager about it.

Maj. Rory Quinn, the unit's executive officer, said that every little improvement helped keep Ramadi free of bombings.

"I've got to fix sewers today to buy three more days without one. You're constantly buying yourself three or four days to prevent another Iraqi from wanting to go out and kill Americans."

It doesn't take long to see that the desire for clean streets and pleasant surroundings has overtaken security concerns in Ramadi, where the population has declined by 100,000 residents since the war began four years ago.

Much of the city remains blighted by crumbling buildings and bullet-scarred facades, but there are rebuilt schools, offices, and businesses painted in bright colors, such as raspberry and lime green. A pedestrian walkway erected over the city's main street is robin's-egg blue.

Early each morning, young men and boys in the main market are paid to sweep debris out of alleys lined with stalls selling a wide variety of goods.

Cleanup is a topic of conversation between U.S. troops and local leaders as they gather at sheiks' villas to chat over French cigarettes, Cuban cigars and hot tea. It is the focus of meetings convened at U.S. military posts. It is the first thing shopkeeper Ibrahim Jassim Ahmed mentions when asked whether he has any complaints.

"The biggest problem is that trash right there," he said, pointing at an empty lot about 25 feet from the door of his tiny food store, where waste was strewn like soiled confetti. "It should be taken away to another area."

Two large trash containers sat on the edge of the field. Both were empty, pointing up one of the battles facing the U.S. and Iraqi officials trying to beautify Ramadi: getting people to use garbage cans.

The issue was the source of lively debate that evening when some local leaders met with Marines in the Jamaya neighborhood.

"What can I do for you?" asked Lt. Jordan Reese, the unit's designated trash guru, as he leaned forward and looked into the creased face of Karim Arak, a Ramadi city councilman.

"I need Dumpsters," Arak replied.

"We just ordered 400," Reese said.

"It's not enough," Arak replied. He wanted at least 1,500.

Reese counseled patience. "Four hundred is just the first step. It's not going to happen overnight, but we're trying to get as many out there as possible," he said.

Conversation shifted to the logic of spending money on containers that people might not use.

Someone suggested making posters showing people putting trash into containers. Someone else recommended asking imams to broadcast "no littering" messages. The city's director general of trash, Akram Mirshed Mahane, joked that an Iraqi police officer should be posted next to each bin to shoot litterbugs.

The issue goes beyond litter, though. This city produces more than the garden variety of city waste. It is a combination of rubble from the war and of garbage that went uncollected for years. Some of it flew away on desert winds, but most of it ended up mixed with the region's silken sand and in canals.

The Marines are hoping that a landfill on the city's southeastern edge becomes an organized city dump. For now, it is a tangle of crushed car parts, plastic bottles, paper and tons of unrecognizable muck heaped in mounds.

"This is the fight -- sewage, water and trash," Lt. James Colvin said as he showed the landfill to a visitor. "I was a poor math major in college. I come here and they tell me: 'OK, fix the sewage system!' " said Colvin, remembering how shocked he was to return to Ramadi and find that he could walk down streets that he once dreaded crossing in an armored vehicle. "But there's no enemy to hunt down now, so this is our line of attack."

We eagerly await the New Republic series on the atrocities committed against dumpsters...

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 26, 2007 6:43 AM
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