Letter from Iraq: Did I really make a difference in Iraq?

I'm almost out of here. I'll be re-deploying back home from Iraq in a matter of days. I'm so close to the end, I've been reflecting on what type of job I did. I'm faced with the question: Did I really make a difference?...

I'm almost out of here. I'll be re-deploying back home from Iraq in a matter of days. I'm so close to the end, I've been reflecting on what type of job I did. I'm faced with the question: Did I really make a difference?

The other day, an NGO representative credited a fellow officer and me for really making a difference in getting their program out to the Iraqi business community. Today, I was one of several recipients in an award ceremony where the Assistant Division Commander -- Support (ADCS) Brigadier Gen. O'Neil, thanked us all for our service. He noted that while some people look back at the end of their lives and are unable to identify one accomplishment, we can look back and know we made history. Nice words. Yes. But really, did I make a difference?

I just ran into one of the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Offices (IRMO) senior consultants for a ministry. He's a dynamic, intelligent, energetic and very seasoned individual. Every time I've visited his office, I quickly felt the passion for his work as he described an issue. This time as we met in the hall, things were different. He was saying such things as "I've had it with this place," "This place has been an absolute zoo" and "I feel like I should just kill myself."

It was the last comment that really struck me. Taught to spot suicide warning signals, I questioned him more. Fortunately, he was just letting out all his frustration. He was upset because he felt as if the last 15 months of his life had been wasted. Having personally thrown so much energy into his work, he was disgusted that in all this time the Iraqis were not able to solve even their water or sewer problems. (This is not entirely true).

He noted that no one in Iraq was capable of making decisions. "They can't even handle the simple task of picking up plane tickets," he said


I've heard similar complaints vented from both civilians and military working with Iraqi government officials. There has been a general impression that many Iraqi officials are more interested with the prestige of the job and perks that fall from it than with the serious work ahead to be done. Americans, whether civilians or military, serving so far away from home in an effort to rebuild a nation, are bound to get frustrated at times because of this attitude.

Thomas Friedman in his book "Longitudes and Attitudes" warned that if we went into Iraq we would own it, meaning we would be pouring considerable money into the rebuilding of Iraq. The degree of financial support that would be required for this effort became clear to me the day I visited Abu Nuwas Park.

The United States through military CERP funds (Commander's Emergency Relief Program) has been the source of approximately $3 million in funds to restore this park that had been largely abandoned due to Iraq's series of wars. I had served as pay agent for this project, responsible in paying cash to contractors (cash is still the primary way of conducting financial transactions) when I was told by the military contract manager that a payment was due. With $3 million in funds invested, I had visions of seeing Baghdad's version of the Duluth Rose Garden. I was sadly disappointed.

While there were shrubs planted throughout the park, they were rather sparse. There were new sidewalks throughout the park and along the park's edge which bordered the Tigris River. Also, there was new children's play equipment throughout the park. A couple of unimpressive fountains had been placed in the park. The sod had been laid but noticeably every other row was missing, apparently with the thought that it would eventually spread across.

Toward the end of our walk through the park, we came across a small house planted in the middle of the park. An Iraqi woman looked out at us cautiously as we walked past. Meanwhile, a child from the house lingered just outside the door, several feet from the woman. Not long after we passed, the child broke free from the house. He was excited to see us and beamed a smile while giving the thumbs up.

He and his mom had come in from the country to stay at his uncle's. Later, we came across a tea shop along the park's edge. This was a new business, and they had not yet opened up to the public. The owner insisted we come in, and he made us all his tea. We chatted and he told us how excited he was to start his new business. He spoke of how much he was grateful and trusted Americans. He made a point of getting pictures of his son with us in our uniforms.

Through my time here, I've met many of the common Iraqis who, while acknowledging that conditions are tough in Iraq, say they are grateful for what the Coalition Forces have done for their country. The common Iraqis have shown overwhelming gratitude for our toppling of Saddam Hussein, a man who brought upon them so much misery through his ruthless oppression and killing of his own people and his military aggression upon his neighbors which further increased the misery of Iraqis.

There are two levels of battles being fought in Iraq right now that will determine the country's success in transforming into a democracy. One battle is obvious. It's the daily onslaught by the terrorists against the Iraqi people. The death toll is routinely reported by world press.


The other battle is slowly starting to crystallize. It's the battle between whether the leaders of the country will take the petty road, using their positions to gather as much personal wealth and privileges as they can, or whether they will rise to the occasion, assume responsibility and move their country forward with strong leadership to a democracy.

Here lies the heart of where civilians and military personnel serving in Iraq have frustrations and doubt over their contributions. It's also where our nation as a whole appears to share similar emotions and thoughts. We have moved past the question of whether Saddam Hussein had WMD, and if so, whether he posed a threat to the United States. Both sides of this question have resigned themselves to the correctness of their views.

Now, the questions confronting us are whether Iraq can successfully transform itself into a democracy. If it can, will an Arab democratic nation in the Middle East matter to the United States. The frustrations of the IRMO senior consultant and questioning of the value of my effort is typical of many who have been here. As diligently as we work, the major determining factor in an Iraqi success lies not within ourselves but within the common people. They are already stepping up, routinely turning in the terrorists who often hide among them.

Now we can only work hard, watch and wait to see if the people can successfully pressure their leaders to act responsibly. Also, we have these shared doubts because the value of our work largely will not be determined until long into the future, when we'll know if it had an effect on the security of the United States. I may just have to live in doubt, perhaps for as long as it takes my one-year-old daughter to grow into a woman. Until then, all I can do is rest in the comfort that I did my best or as my dad would say, "gave it tar paper" to help the Iraqis move toward the freedoms we now enjoy.

Duluth attorney Chris Dahlberg is stationed with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad.

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