John Matel serves as Team Leader of the Al Asad Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.
Public perceptions of Iraq are not wrong; they are just out of date. Media coverage of Iraq has dropped in almost perfect correlation with progress made toward peace and stability. As a result, the picture persists from pre-surge 2006 but it is not 2006 anymore. It is post-surge in Anbar Province where a significantly more secure Iraq exists rebuilding, learning, governing, producing and starting to make huge strides along the road to prosperity.
Members of my ePRT recently made a visit to Al Qaim, near the Syrian border, and this provides a good example of what I am talking about. Back in 2006, Al Qaim was a bloody battleground, with AQI cutting off heads and hands while insurgents moved around the province with near impunity. This is the picture we all saw in 2006 of Marines fighting building to building and making gains street by street is the one unfortunately far too many of us still recall. The picture in 2008 shows an area of growing prosperity, with markets full of people and things to buy, homes and businesses being rebuilt and people looking to and planning for their future.
During the visit, ePRT affiliated trainers were just finishing up a course for city managers and local officials on project development and anti-corruption efforts. About forty officials attended the four-day program and even on the last day of the training they were involved, excited and animated. A four-day course will not solve Iraq's governance problems, but at least these officials had the ability to imagine and work toward a future better than the past.
Not far away is a vocational training center, run by a USAID contractor. It is graduating its second class of students since it was founded just over a year ago and a third class is already oversubscribed. Young Iraqis are learning all sorts of useful basic skills, such as electrical work, heating and air conditioning, appliance repair, auto mechanics and many construction trades. Students are enthusiastic and are already giving back to the community. For example, in the wood working classes they are assembling desks and bookcases for local elementary school rooms. Graduates are hired by local firms eager for employees with proven basic skills. They are offered good wages, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Demand for graduates far exceeded supply in the first two classes and there are plans to expand the program and make it self- sustaining by getting the businesses that benefit from the program to help fund it.
Iraq's various wars and the late insurgency took a heavy toll on the men of Al Anbar leaving many widows and orphans. One of the ways we are helping address their situation was by opening women's sewing centers, where they are offered training in sewing and tailoring. This is not a temporary fix. These skills can provide basic income and the chance to start a small home business. Graduates get a sewing machine and some basic materials upon graduation to get them started. Empowering women even in a small way that enable them to prosper in specially heartening given the plight of so many widows and orphans across Western Anbar.
A proven way to jump start small businesses is with small loans (microfinance). The microfinance program in Al Anbar made its first loans last November. The number now has reached 211, totaling almost $500,000 and 100% of the payments have so far been made in full and on time. Our team met the owner of a small tire repair shop who benefited from the loan program. He bought a computerized tire balancing system, which increased his customer numbers several fold while saving him time and allowing him to do a better job faster. We talked to another small merchant/manufacturer who creates custom steel rebar and angle iron for construction. When we asked him how his business would have been w/o the small loan program, he told us that he would clearly and simply not have a business at all without the program.
Iraq is certainly no paradise and but what is important here is that it shows what has been done, what can be done and what continues to need to be done here in Iraq. Behind the thriving shops and busy markets are wrecked buildings and damaged lives. Terrorists continue to lurk in the shadows looking for weak spots and openings. But Iraq today shows an unquestionably brighter picture than in 2006 or even back when I arrived just a few months ago in September 2007. The Iraqi people are proving resilient in the face of enormous challenges and demonstrating every day and many ways that if given a chance to improve their lives, they will take it and they will grasp at this new life with a vigor that we often do not see in even more developed situations. The people of western Anbar risked their lives to break free of the grip of AQI and the insurgency. Now they are building the lives they fought for. In our small way, we are helping.