Developing public works in a war-torn Iraq

MAJ John P. Lawlor, Jr.
Public Works Team Chief
415th Civil Affairs Battalion, 1st Infantry Division
"The Big Red One"

When I began making plans to temporarily leave my position as the Public Works Director for the City of Waterbury, Connecticut, the challenges arose far before stepping foot in a combat zone. The first challenge was trying to gather all the information that I would need as Public Works Team Chief for a Civil Affairs Battalion assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, responsible for essential services in the North-Central region of Iraq, which includes the area known as the Sunni Triangle. The larger mission for the Division was to secure four of Iraq's 18 provinces, establish democracy and reestablish the infrastructure in a region that is a microcosm of Iraq.

The Sunni-dominated west joins a natural boundary known as the Green Line, where Kurdish Pesh Merga freedom fighters protect Kurdistan, an area in the north of Iraq governed by Kurds and given autonomy by Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s. Throughout our area, Shi'ite radicals who support the young cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, rise up whenever the situation in the southern cities of An Najaf, Karbala, or Kufa heat up. All groups are suspicious of each other, especially when it comes to receiving public works. I was trying to imagine what would be in store for my team. Would the country have working infrastructure? Would the civilian technicians and engineers be available to make the infrastructure work? Would we be operating in a hostile environment, further complicating our efforts?

The 1st Infantry's area of operation in North Central Iraq

As a Civil Affairs officer in the Army Reserve, this call-up was not unexpected. The Civil Affairs community is ripe with soldiers that possess special skills. Engineers, lawyers, doctors, judges, police officers, city administrators and other professionals fill the ranks of this special army community. I knew that I would be required to go to Iraq and provide my skills to help establish a working civil infrastructure, a cornerstone to developing democracy and restoring civil society for the Iraqi people.

I expected that Iraq would be different than the places I had served before. After all, Iraq was once a powerful nation, with a mighty army and abundant oil reserves. Iraq was home to some of the finest engineers and architects I have known. Expecting that the essential services would be functional, except possibly for the damage that was inflicted as part of the recent fighting, or maybe some residual effects from the first Gulf War, I was wrong.

Iraq had suffered under many years of tyrannical control. The water and wastewater treatment facilities my team initially visited were barely operational. The operators there were doing the best that they could to keep things running. However, financing is controlled at the national level and, therefore, slow in reaching the rural and outlying areas away from Baghdad. Imagine having to petition to Washington, D.C. every time you had to buy a new piece of equipment for a public works department back home. But Iraqis were used to this process as a result of a government where all the power and money is centralized. The issues at the various plants were the same—no resources for regular maintenance or knowledge of the need for regular maintenance; no money to purchase necessary equipment to keep the plants operating at acceptable levels. All decisions were made in the nation's capitol, making it a Baghdad-centric system. Resources flow into Baghdad like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but rarely flow out to the poor villages and towns that populate the Fertile-Crescent or desert oasis villages in Western Iraq.

In order to kick-start the reconstruction effort and secure the peace following the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Commanders Emergency Relief Program (CERP) pumped sixty million dollars of captured funds into the 1st Infantry Division area. Additionally, the U.S. Congress has recently appropriated over 18.4 billion dollars earmarked for the deliberate reconstruction of some essential services throughout all of Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its Program Management Office (PMO) were tasked to organize these efforts. CPA offices were established in the capitol of each of Iraq's provinces, facilitating a decentralized approach to reconstruction. The largest challenge for these organizations was to empower local government and leaders to help themselves—a daunting task after 35 years of dictatorial rule where directives were issued from the top down, with no questions asked.

A government serving the people instead of the reverse was a brand new concept to the people of Iraq. Even public works projects were initiated from officials who rarely set eyes on the villages or towns they were supposed to represent. Previously, contracts and jobs went to people connected to Saddam's Ba'ath party or those loyal to his regime. Villages that did not go along with the dictator's wishes were punished by suffering a lack of basic services such as electricity or clean drinking water. So one can understand the fear and confusion a typical Iraqi civic leader might experience when dealing with a foreign Coalition Force member who, after all, was supposed to be an infidel hellbent on taking Iraq's oil and spreading western influence according to the Propaganda Minister.

Public Works Team discusses a reconstruction project with a local engineer and his interpreter

When working with the Iraqi civic leaders the stereotypes are quickly dispelled; however, the daunting task of coordinating construction projects is even further complicated when communications are spotty at best. The common luxuries of Internet, cellular telephones, and faxes are not readily available. Most of Iraq is not covered by cellular coverage, increasing the market for satellite phones in the vast expanse between population centers. Unlike cellular phones, one must be either outside or have a docking station with an antenna on top of a roof to receive satellite calls. Internet coverage is expanding in the country, but the language barrier again causes friction. The other danger of coordinating meeting and travel plans over a nonsecure e-mail is that it can potentially end up on an al-Qaeda, or other terrorist's computer screen.

Simple project meetings take on a new added difficulty as we try, through the use of our interpreters, to coordinate logistical requirements, inspections, and payments for our various projects. Not to mention that choosing an interpreter is not as simple as it sounds due to the ethnic and religious mix that every member of the team must understand. For example, using a Kurdish interpreter when engaging a Sunni Arab engineer might yield an inaccurate picture of the situation or a conversation based on the interpreter's agenda. Once project coordination on the ground level is done, communication is mostly done through runners who carry messages from the project managers to the contractors and back again. It is even possible that the project manager might not even visit the site before it is complete, or in some cases that the contractor has sold the job to another contractor, adding to the list of middlemen on a simple project.

When working with local civic leaders, it is important that you facilitate, not dictate. This country is no stranger to occupiers starting several centuries ago, but most recently with the Ottoman Turks, British and even some would consider us, the American-led Coalition Force. These leaders are used to being told what to do, instead of being asked what they think needs to be done. Even though our recommendations for priorities of work during this reconstruction may be based on sound engineering practices and principles, the opinion of the local communities may be that we are favoring one tribe over another. This education process proves to be a challenge for us daily.

Initiating an Iraqi public works department
We are careful not to impose the American way in everything we do. Therefore it is important to work closely with our Iraqi counterparts to ensure that progress has Iraqi ownership. Some concepts and programs naturally evolve to imitate U.S.-style programs and civic organizations. The most exciting and challenging program my team is involved in right now is the development of public works departments for the Qadas (counties) of the Salah Ad Din Governorate.

Salah Ad Din is one of four governorates which my team is responsible for. Its population is approximately 1.2 million, comprised mostly of Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs. Its major cities include Bayji, Balad, Samarra, Tikrit (near Saddam's birth and hiding place) and Taji. There are eight Qadas in Salah Ad Din.

MAJ John Lawlor, Public Works Team Chief, discusses public works organizational structure with Qada engineers during a regular workshop session.

Each governorate has the responsibility to provide the essential public works services that are necessary to allow for the communities to be healthy and prosperous. However, not all of the governorates have the structure and experience to perform this responsibility. To begin with, most of the newly elected or appointed civic leaders have very little experience in public works due to the cronyism that thrived for over three decades. Most of the well-connected leaders of the past are either dead, imprisoned, on the run, or in hiding. Some have come forward, renounced their past and have assumed similar roles in society. Due to the "de-Ba'athification" of Iraq, new leaders and engineers are learning on the job, experiencing great success as well as frustration at times. This is happening on all levels, from national to the smallest city and county councils.

The first step that we took in developing these Qada public works departments for Salah Ad Din was selecting the correct leadership. We discussed potential candidates with the local leaders and sheiks of each town within the Qada, as well as the Governor of Salah Ad Din. We identified the skills and education that would be necessary for these "Directors" to possess. The result was eight individuals representing each of the Qadas.

Next we held workshop sessions with the eight "Qada Directors" and the one "Governorate Director." Organizational structures were carefully considered and discussed. Each Qada had its own special needs and abilities, so a template structure would need to be modified for each. The basic design for each organization would eventually include a Director and a supervisor for roads, water, sewer and solid waste. These four main areas were chosen because these were determined to be most critical to Iraq at this time, and the funding that these departments would be responsible for was focused to support these areas—especially due to the fact that the Coalition Provisional Authority, Project Management Office (PMO) wanted to invest nearly $60 million in the province that could potentially turn into another Fallujah, an area that exploded with violence during an April uprising. This emphasized the importance for the Directors to tailor their public works departments to their needs while managing the large sums of incoming money that focused on satisfying those needs. Budgets were developed and more workshops were held to assist the Directors on how to manage and plan accordingly.

This particular project is an exciting one that has involved several groups. Army engineers, civic leaders and U.S. contractors are but a few of those that are involved. In fact, I enjoyed working with Husham Al-Kaisy, a fellow APWA member and Transportation Engineer from Tampa, Florida who is here as a contractor for Berger-Lewis.

The 415th (1st Infantry Division) Civil Affairs Public Works Team (L-R): CPT David Unger, MSG Barbara Slocum, CPT Ryan Jerke, and MAJ John Lawlor at Forward Operating Base DANGER, Tikrit, Iraq

Our mission of rebuilding key infrastructure and restoring essential services is not complete. However, my team's time will expire soon and we will hand off the projects and programs that we began to our replacements. In this line of work, patience is a virtue and a rare one at that. Results are expected overnight and expectations are that a "super power" has super powers. Many Iraqis wonder why the greatest nation on earth cannot build brand new power plants or water treatment facilities in a matter of days. Lack of infrastructure is blamed on poor security and unemployment. Unemployment and the lack of security are blamed on the lack of essential services. In this part of the world, effectiveness of public works is measured by a decrease or increase of violent attacks against Coalition Forces or Iraqi people. Every project that my team completes is a victory in many ways and the rewards are felt far beyond what a paycheck can provide.

Upon the conclusion of our last visit to one of our many project sites, a water treatment plant, the team was attacked with light artillery. Just a reminder that this is not like back home and that everyone does not support our intentions to rebuild Iraq. It is difficult for us to understand how villagers would attack their own water treatment plant just because we were there. As a matter of fact, engineers, interpreters, and businessmen attending the meeting were members of the tribe who make up the vast majority of the population as the inhabitants of this village. Luckily, the Anti-Iraq Force's attempts were in vain as all members agreed to conclude the visit, complete the plan and initiate work as soon as possible, all before the churned-up clumps of dirt and smoke settled around us. This type of dedication by the majority of Iraqis helps us deal with getting attacked by the few who fear change and resent those trying to make a difference.

MAJ John P. Lawlor, Jr. can be reached at


"The one chased away with a club comes back, but the one chased away with kihooto (reason) does not." - Kikuyu, Kenya proverb

"Remember, after the storm, there will be a rainbow." - Nilotic proverb

"It is easier to transport an anthill than exercise authority in a village." - Mongo proverb