In Iraq, CPA seeks to fill void left by U.N.

by Jenn Buck | 4/15/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series chronicling a student reporter's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. The Dartmouth was one of the few news organizations in the province, covering news there over the past three weeks.

ERBIL, Iraq -- When the United Nations pulled out of Baghdad last fall, citing increased security concerns, the international organization left some big shoes to fill.

The U.N. had been the biggest redeveloper and humanitarian assistance organization in the country, directing $46 billion worth of Iraqi oil revenues to buy food, supplies and development projects to citizens since 1996.

The Oil-for-Food program, which ended Nov. 21 of last year, served as "the sole sustenance for 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 27 million people," according to the U.N.

But after the UN transferred the remaining Oil-for-Food money to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its workers left the country, the problem of feeding, housing, and educating impoverished Iraqis was left largely in the hands of Coalition forces.

The CPA assumes responsibility for the largest-scale programs, like training the New Iraqi Army and creating new government departments.

But the job of providing humanitarian assistance often falls into the hands of the willing.

In the northern province of Kurdistan, families often place a high value on education, locals say. But schools are not available to all children.

Kurdistan, unlike the rest of Iraq, is a temperate mountainous region dotted with snow-capped peaks and watered by cool streams running down rocky hillsides.

The geography is beautiful, but it makes difficult work of providing assistance to the farmers, shepherds and other local families who make a living high up in the mountains.

Many outlying villages lack electricity and clean water. None have phone lines to communicate with the provincial government, located hours away in the capital city of Erbil.

A Civil Affairs Team (CAT-A) lead by Lt. Hilfiger covers the hundreds of kilometers to the outlying villages almost daily, meeting with mayors and residents of individual towns. They gather information and take pictures to document the condition of schools, roads and public works, and then return to Erbil.

The CAT-A teams look for "short-term, high impact" projects that to relieve the work of the provisional ministers, who need to focus on long-range plans for redevelopment.

Faced with rebuilding an entire province that was devastated by civil war and the imposition of Saddam Hussein, the ministerial government can't handle and can't fund all the projects that need to be done.

So the CAT-A teams bring their requests for redevelopment projects to other sources, including the CPA.

Since the CPA that now controls the former U.N. Oil-for-Food money, individual soldiers, like Spc. Edward Schoenleber of Philadelphia, have significant sums at their discretion -- and an opportunity to shape much of Kurdistan's future.

Schoenleber, a member of Hilfiger's CAT-A team, is working directly with Dorothy Mazaka, the Education Advisor to the CPA-North, to rebuild two million dollars' worth of schools in rural Kurdistan.

Schoenleber has gathered proposals from different contractors to build schools and has weeded through and picked the best ones.

If his funding comes through, he will build no fewer than 12 new schools, each complete with its own generator, running water, playground, and teachers' housing.

"No one has used contractors in Kurdistan more than U.S. Army CAT-A teams," said Schoenleber. "We have lists of the good and the bad ones."

One problem this CAT-A team faced was the price inflation the United Nations fostered by paying exorbitant prices for construction.

There have also been rumors of kickbacks and other corruption among redevelopers in Iraq. That's why Schoenleber picked all new contractors, he said. His teammate, Sgt. Tom Brashier, will oversee construction and enforce quality control.

Schoenleber made a presentation early in April to Mazaka, formerly a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mazaka said she was impressed by Schoenleber's proposal.

"You've done some really excellent work, Edward," she said at a meeting in the CPA building outside Erbil.

"You've looked into the details, and it's cost-effective. This is going to help a lot of people."

The towns affected will be provided with buses as well as new schools, which the planning team expects will more than double class sizes.

"Right now, these kids are walking to school," said Mazaka. "As we begin to provide bus services, they're going to come out of the woodwork."

"These schools are going to grow very quickly. That's why we must plan ahead and build them to accommodate future class sizes."

The proposed schools will not only teach primary and secondary-level boys and girls, but will also teach literacy to adults in the evening, and Mazaka hopes to phase in courses like health education, life skills, and women's health.

The U.S. Army also plans to donate playground equipment for the new schools.

"We are not only building new schools here, but we are teaching the local mayors how to do budget proposals and to obtain bids," Schoenleber said. "It's a two-fold process."

Mazaka said she agreed.

"The key to success here in Iraq is not just what happens in the next six months, the next year," she said.

"Raising a new generation of educated Iraqis will empower them to run their free and democratic country in a humane and effective way in the future."