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Attention Must Be Paid

It seems that while the military can hold out against the insurgents, they are having a hard time winning the political and social battles. This is exactly what the reconstruction was supposed to do.
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So today we read that the top commander in western Iraq, Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, says that "We are not in our end state yet,'' a phrase which uncomfortably echoes a certain Monty Python skit. It seems that while the military can hold out against the insurgents, they are having a hard time winning the political and social battles. This is exactly what the reconstruction of Iraq was supposed to do, to provide the resources to win hearts and minds and build a stable government. The problem is, the reconstruction has long been the Willie Loman of the war in Iraq: Nobody's paying attention. The Senate has just approved an additional $63 billion for the war in Iraq. There's not a dime in there for additional rebuilding.

As I show in my new book, Blood Money, on the reconstruction of Iraq, the rebuilding program is riddled with failures. But there have been notable successes, usually spearheaded by smart, on-the-ground military commanders like Gen. Pete Chiarelli and Gen. David Petraeus who have recognized the value of hearts and minds operations.

On a trip to Sadr City in August 2004 while reporting for the Los Angeles Times, I saw a neighborhood ripped apart by war. Bullets shots ricocheted through alleys and American tanks rumbled down the wide, dusty boulevards. One year later, after an intensive program of rebuilding overseen by the U.S. Army and coordinated with the State Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I returned to a different scene. For the first time in Iraq, I saw adults and children smiling and waving at U.S. soldiers, rather than casting fearful, dour gazes. The water was running in local homes. Some shop owners had electricity. There was regular trash pick up.

There were still plenty of problems. Huge pools of raw sewage stagnated in the streets. We visited a health clinic that had not been built despite months of work. U.S. Army Lt. Col. S. Jamie Gayton, who was then overseeing the reconstruction for the 3rd Infantry Division, did not claim that the rebuilding alone had led to a decrease in violence. He acknowledged that militia members would rise up again--as they have done several times since my visit. But Gayton believed that fewer people would heed the call. "Our goal is to provide them with hope so they see that tomorrow is better than today," he said.

That's a soldier's perspective, as close to the ground as you can get. But neither the Bush administration nor Congress has heard the call. The administration has all but abandoned the reconstruction program. The biggest chunk of cash will be spent by the end of this month. All that will be left are funds for small scale public works--village wells and soccer fields that are useful, but not nearly comprehensive enough to lift up the Iraqi people and its economy.

It makes no sense to cut off the flow of funds while there are still troops in Iraq. That only deprives the U.S. military and the State Department of a vital tool. We have a moral, legal and political responsibility to restore the country to at least the shape it was in prior to the U.S. invasion.

To do otherwise would be the biggest failure yet in the reconstruction.