BASRA, Iraq — The tourist ship “Peace” was at
anchor in the Shatt al-Arab waterway but southern Iraq’s business leaders were
eager to explore new waters when Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq,
took the podium Thursday and urged them to project positive energy instead of complaining
about all the things that are wrong with Iraq.
After declaring Hill an honorary citizen of Basra, the
center of southern Iraq’s oil wealth and home to its major port, Hatim
al-Machari, the owner of several publications, went on to welcome the 2003 U.S.-led
invasion of his country. “We feel proud that America and the
multi-national forces have freed our country from the Saddam (Hussein)
regime,” he said.
Three months after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities
and started packing their bags, violence is down dramatically in Iraq, and the
U.S. seems to be returning to a role familiar from postwar Western Europe —
that of supporter, protector and mentor.
Iraqi military and civilian officials talk about the United
States as a strategic partner in a dangerous neighborhood, the facilitator of
future business investments, even the solver of problems in the provinces and
the dysfunctional central government.
Ehsan Abdul Jabbar, the head of a local government
investment council in Basra, told the crowd of 50 aboard the “Peace”
the Americans are staying “to lead Iraq to the place where it can develop,
to reach with Iraq the edge of safety.”
Hill agreed with a businessman who asked for help convincing
the United Nations to revoke 1991 sanctions that still thwart Iraq’s air and
sea transportation. “It’s definitely on my radar screen,” Hill said —
just what the audience wanted to hear.
“We are sure that if the Americans are convinced of
something they will do it,” someone cried out. The 50 or so businessmen
nodded agreement as the mood morphed into that of a revival meeting.
It was the first trip to Iraq’s second-largest city for
Hill, a veteran diplomat with experience in Eastern Europe and Korea, since he
assumed his post in late April. Hill came to Basra to deliver the “tough
love” message that Iraqis must start taking over the management of their
own affairs, but his own takeaway was the country’s enormous problems could be
solved if Iraqis learn to manage their affairs.
His visit took place on the eve of a U.S.-sponsored
conference in Washington that’s expected to attract hundreds of U.S. and
foreign investors, as well as some 200 Iraqi businessmen in a delegation led by
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The top ranking-military officer in Basra, Maj. Gen.
Mohammed Jawad Hwaidi, in a separate meeting, expressed gratitude for the
hearts-and-minds projects that U.S. forces and civil affairs experts are
undertaking and asked the U.S. to help defend Shiite Muslim-ruled Iraq in the
face of hostile Sunni-ruled countries.
“Neighboring countries in the area will not like to see
a strong and secure Iraq,” he told Hill, singling out Saudi Arabia, Egypt
and Syria by name. Hill responded diplomatically that some of Iraq’s neighbors
“dislike us even more than they dislike you,” a reference to Iran,
but added: “Others have respect for us, and I think we can do something to
help you,” a reference to the Sunni neighbors.
As for the U.S. military presence, “as long as your
people want us here, we will be here,” Hill said.
Hwaidi, who spent years in prison under the Saddam Hussein
regime and in March 2008 was in charge of the operations room when al-Maliki
led the military operation that freed Basra of Shiite militias, was supposed to
be in Lebanon to receive medical treatment, but he delayed his departure to
welcome Hill, an aide said.
When British troops were in southern Iraq, children
“threw rocks at convoys,” the general told him. “Now they wave
and say ‘hi.'” He added: “Iraqis realize the Americans are here to
help change the country. With your continued support, we will find benefits
both in the economy and in our security.”
His told Hill U.S. forces should continue to help restore
fresh water to Basra, where due to the growing salinity of the Shatt al-Arab —
the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — the taps now spew salty
U.S. military experts on water said there isn’t a water
crisis so much as a management and maintenance crisis, caused in part by the
central government’s refusal to yield funds and decision-making authority to
provincial authorities. The U.S. has put $40 million into fixing the water
supply in the past year, and has awarded $2 million to teach blue-collar
workers the technical aspects of sustaining water equipment.
“The only issue or concern that remains is how Baghdad
manages its provinces, and what freedom or latitude is given to the provincial
governors,” said Maj. Peter Hesford, 37, of Portland, Ore., a water supply
expert with the Army’s 364th Civil Affairs Battalion based now in Baghdad.
“At the same time, it is important not to try to force
an American system here — we just want one that works, is efficient, and most
of all is sustainable after the U.S. soldiers pack their bags and return
home,” he told McClatchy.