BADRA, IRAQ // The US army had just turned up at the town council offices, and the US military commander was explaining to the Iraqis how things were going to work. They were talking about reconstruction in Badra, a dishevelled, cinderblock-and-litter town near the Iranian border.
"I would love to fix every problem that you've got," Lt Col Timothy Bush said. "But I'm in the military. We can help, but that's not my primary mission and it's not what I've been trained to do. Rebuilding a country is not what I've been trained to do. It's like asking a doctor to build a house." It was Lt Col Bush's first meeting with local officials since his artillery unit deployed to Wasit province, south-east of Baghdad, two months ago. He had turned up in a heavily armoured convoy and wore the standard camouflage fatigues, but had taken off his bulletproof vest and helmet as a sign of trust and respect. His soldiers were still holding their rifles and had their body armour on. One wore sunglasses despite the indoor gloom. There was no electricity in the council building.
The local councillors were mainly dressed in shirtsleeves, although Ali Hardi, the town mayor, had on a smart dark suit and tie. Mr Hardi had just explained that US forces had come to the area before and built two water-purification plants to stop the spread of cholera, neither of which actually work. "I'll help, but my projects aren't going to be that good," Lt Col Bush said. "The two we built broke already. You guys, you, the patriots in this room, will do a better job than I will in rebuilding Iraq. My goal is that we can buy some time so we can fix Iraq together. And that's not to say I'm not going to try to do some projects for you. I want to do some projects for you."
The small council room was overfilled with people, and US soldiers and Iraqi town leaders jammed onto the sofas that lined the walls. Tea had been served in two rounds because they did not have enough glasses for everyone to drink at the same time. Lt Col Bush's opening suggestion was that they try to turn Badra into a stop-off point for Iranian pilgrims, en route to the Shiite holy sites in Najaf and Kerbala. "You should make a shopping mall, restaurants and hotels," he had said. "We could build a strip mall. That's what we do in the US."
He had also suggested that they make a tourist attraction out of a castle in Badra, built by Alexander the Great. "In the States, towns build giant balls of string and things like that," he told the councillors. "They've got nothing special about them so they make something special, and people driving past stop in to see it. You've got Alexander the Great's castle, surely people would want to see that, you don't need a giant ball of string."
The US officer was trying to be enthusiastic and sound positive about Badra's future. The Iraqis were more subdued about its prospects as a lucrative tourist spot: many of the pilgrims passing though cannot even afford the US$40 (Dh147) visa fee to enter Iraq and instead cross the border illegally. Badra's councillors were also sceptical of the US troops' talk of reconstruction. "We've had visits from the Americans before and they've promised us projects," Flayeh Hasooni, the former town mayor, politely told the gathering. "Unfortunately, from all of those promises, only two have been implemented and neither of them functions. The contractors did not do the work properly."
Mr Hasooni had prefaced his remarks with a lengthy homage to US soldiers for deposing Saddam Hussien, praising them for bringing democracy to Iraq. Badra is a Shiite town and was treated harshly by the former dictator for supposedly co-operating with the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. It had no love for the Baath Party and is not one of those places that secretly yearns for things to be put back as they were.
But more than five years after the invasion, Badra had hardly anything to show for it, Mr Hasooni said. "The British built a small bridge here in 1955 and until now the Iraqi people talk about this bridge and what the British did for us; we think well of them for that. Whereas the people of Badra say the Americans built two water purification plants and neither of them work. "We want the Americans to leave something simple and functional so that future generations will remember them well."
Once again Lt Col Bush tried to push the idea that the US military had not turned up with a lorry-load of money to hand out. They would not be building any bridges, he said, but hoped to assist in getting the economy functioning. "Economic opportunity would be the best gift I could leave you," he said. Mr Hardi pushed back, saying the electricity still did not work. The US commander told him that was not the US army's business, that the Iraqi government would handle it. So the Iraqis tried a different tack. He asked for $14 million to build a 5km road - more expensive than it would be to construct in Europe. The council believed it would add to the prestige of the town and impress Iranian pilgrims, he said.
Wasit province, including Badra, has been in charge of its own civil affairs since 2004. Much of whatever money has been spent in the area appears to have been used in the provincial capital, Kut. According to US officials and local Iraqis, a significant proportion of that has been siphoned away in corruption. Lt Col Bush asked if the council had submitted a proposal for the road to the Iraqi government, and the mayor explained that it had not bothered to.
He personally knew a minister and had tried to bypass the official channels, which he said never actually worked anyway. But his request for a favour from the minister had not worked either, he admitted. Mr Hardi suggested the US forces could instead give the town a special grant for the road. "The Iraqi government has $80bn in surpluses," Lt Col Bush said. "This road is clearly important and if I were the government of Iraq it'd be high on my priority list and I'd fund it. If they choose not to, that's the price of democracy."
More minor sparring led the meeting towards its inconclusive ending. Lt Col Bush said the Iraqi government was now supposed to be funding big projects. The Iraqis said they needed schools, medical centres, power and got no help from Baghdad. They needed money from the US army. Speaking afterwards, Mr Hasooni said the US commander had a habit of calling meetings, asking what the Iraqis needed and then doing nothing: "This reflects negatively on America," he said. "It makes Iraqi society say they don't fulfil their promises."
Democracy had brought freedom of speech and the freedom to complain, he said. But it had also brought into power an Iraqi government that failed to take care of its people. "Thank God there is democracy," he said. "But in services, Iraq suffers a lot. We get electricity for five hours a day, basic needs are not met. The citizen is entitled to clean water and electricity and care from the government.
"There are no people in power here who actually want to take responsibility for the people. There is no incentive to care for people." Mr Hardi said he was frustrated with progress, but insisted he remained optimistic. "The Americans gave us freedom and maybe with that we will be able to move on to something better. We are like a baby in the beginning years. Gradually we will reach the level of development of the countries of the world."
In the meantime, there will be more meetings with Lt Col Bush's team. It has another 10 months left in its deployment. firstname.lastname@example.org