News: North Babil embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team prepares for new mission
Story by Sgt. David Turner
By Sgt. David Turner
4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq – As members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, prepare to re-deploy home to Fort Stewart, Ga., the North Babil embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team is preparing for a new mission of their own.
With coalition troops covering more area and combining missions with Iraqi army units, the North Babil ePRT is merging forces with the U.S. Dept. of State's Babil PRT, based in Babil's provincial capital Hilla. As the team prepares for the move, members can now look back on the past year working with the Vanguard Brigade with pride. Areas south of Baghdad have seen a dramatic decrease in sectarian violence and elections scheduled to take place in January indicate progress in the political future for Iraqis. As operations have transformed from battling insurgents to rebuilding Iraq's local governments and infrastructure, the North Babil ePRT has been a vital part of the 4th BCT's mission.
"The overall mission [of the ePRT] is to facilitate reconciliation, economic development and good governance," said team leader Howard VanVranken, a 20-year U.S. Dept. of State Foreign Service veteran whose past tours have taken him to Israel, Tunisia, Yemen and Lebanon. He leads a team of seven civilians and six Soldiers whose combined expertise is focused on developing local governance, agriculture, economic development and infrastructure.
"We're trying to get the Iraqis to heal some of the sectarian and intra-Iraqi rivalries and frictions that have existed in the past. At the same time we're trying to help build the economy and help the government improve its ability to provide essential services and to do so in a way that's fair and equitable through processes that tend to be more democratic than they have been in the past."
When the 4th BCT came into the area, sectarian violence was already beginning to decline, in part due to new counter-insurgency tactics and the troop surge of 2007. Large sectors of the local population had boycotted provincial elections in 2005, which combined with security concerns, made it difficult for the government of Iraq to provide essential services such as water purification and electricity.
Maj. Kimberly Peeples, deputy team leader of the North Babil ePRT, began her tour of duty as brigade engineer before joining the team. She recalled what the situation was like when she arrived.
"When we first got here, there were areas where the enemy owned the terrain. We were in different bases, but there weren't [safe] roads; we didn't have freedom of maneuver. The enemy basically had sanctuary throughout the AO," said Peeples
The lack of services such as health care and clean water was potentially devastating to the area. In recent months, Cholera has shown up in Babil province, as in other parts of the country.
"The health care system had collapsed and basic inoculations weren't happening, and people weren't able to get the basic level of health care that had been prevalent in Iraq," said VanVranken. "According to the Iraqi government's own statistics, less than half the people in Babil province have reliable access to clean drinking water. That's clearly a problem that's solvable by the government."
The education system was near collapse, VanVranken said; schools were in disrepair or had to be closed. Irrigation problems and lack of resources normally provided by the government also left much land uncultivated.
The ePRT met the challenge of stepping in to help local citizens rebuild their damaged infrastructure and government while the GoI worked to reform the connections that had been lost. U.S. Dept. of State funds were used to stimulate agriculture and business. Other projects were aimed at improving adult literacy and training local officials in governance. Wherever the GoI was unable to meet the immediate needs of citizens, State Dept. Quick Reaction Fund grants were used to fill the gaps. In areas like Kidhr, where battles with al-Qaeda insurgents left homes destroyed, QRF was used to buy building materials so citizens could rebuild.
"Those areas were completely devastated by al-Qaeda," recalled Peeples. "It took a long time for it to get off its feet, but in the end ... they even took some of the foundations and used the new material to build up. We gave them a little help, we didn't do everything for them, and they took the initiative."
Important to the success of such programs, said Peeples, was the involvement of local citizens. The Sons of Iraq program helped citizens to secure their own neighborhoods, and the formation of farmer's unions and town councils gave people the means to address their issues collectively. Working with coalition forces to meet their goals began to show benefits. As people organized themselves and made their areas more secure, more assistance, both from coalition forces and the Iraqi government, began flowing in.
"We showed people there's a reward for being peaceful. Take control of your area the peaceful way, take ownership," said Peeples.
The ePRT now meets regularly with local councils and provides them with training and loan programs. With a law recently passed calling for new provincial elections, the way forward, said VanVranken, is in guiding local government in assisting themselves.
"The era when we get involved in significant brick-and-mortar projects is over. We don't have the resources; they have a ton of money. It's certainly safe enough for them to do the work themselves. They know what to do and have the capacity to do it," he said.
"I think we've been able to take advantage of a window of opportunity that was provided by our Soldiers and Iraqi military and police, as well as the Sons of Iraq to initiate a variety of programs that I think will have a long-lasting effect."
Peeples has a similar view.
"We're at that balancing point now where we need to stop providing and continue to mentor them," she said.
VanVranken said he is pleased with the work his team has accomplished in his time and as the Vanguard Brigade redeploys, his team will merge with the Babil PRT. Civil affairs Soldiers will do some of the work that remains.
"I think the situation has matured to the point that we've almost worked ourselves out of a job," he said.