Features

One step forward, one step backward

National | IRAQ: Even as violent militants use terror and chaos to impose their will on post-Saddam, post-occupation Iraq, humanitarian workers and Iraqis of goodwill forge important progress

Issue: "One nation under God," June 26, 2004

Mike Williams was on a humanitarian mission inspecting water and health facilities in southern Iraq when locals asked him to take a look at a broken water pump. The problem was easily fixed, but Mr. Williams, a chemical engineer from Atlanta, was fascinated by the treatment system.

Using low-tech sand filters, a reservoir, and garden hose, a compact four-foot-by-four-foot filtration system was taking water out of a Euphrates tributary and making it potable for a village of thousands. The difference to the impoverished Shiite community, where health and sanitation problems had been rampant, was marked. The locals were so grateful to U.S. soldiers who installed the unit, they dubbed the tributary "Bush River." Mr. Williams made a mental note of stamped letters on the side of the filter system, "Water Missions International, Charleston, S.C.," and vowed to look it up when he returned to the United States.

Water Missions International director George Greene IV was as surprised as Mr. Williams by the success of his mini-treatment plant. Just as major hostilities ended last year, his faith-based nonprofit shipped out the unit, along with three others, to Kuwait City, where they were to be trucked into Iraq and set up by a partner relief and development group, International Aid. But the $10,000 units disappeared along the way, and Mr. Greene had spent months trying unsuccessfully to track them down. He had no idea they might actually already be in service.

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"We were thrilled to learn that they were being used as we had thought they were probably sitting lost in a warehouse collecting dust," Mr. Greene told WORLD.

The water-treatment saga captures the lighter side of confusion and chaos hampering Iraq's rebuilding. Last week saboteurs successfully shut down Iraq's oil industry. They blasted two key pipelines leading south to the Basrah export terminal, and attacked a pipeline carrying oil to a domestic refinery near Kirkuk. Meanwhile, gunmen assassinated a senior officer for Northern Oil in a June 16 ambush in Kirkuk.

Insurgents and terrorists want to destroy the notable progress to rebuild Iraq ahead of the June 30 handover. At the same time, they have made a point in the last three months to target U.S. contract workers and volunteer humanitarians responsible for it.

The same week Mr. Williams went to work on the missing water-treatment plant, insurgents attacked and killed four Southern Baptist missionaries in Mosul, where they also were installing water-treatment systems. Kidnappings and attacks on Western workers look likely only to increase as the interim government takes charge. Gunmen killed three General Electric employees and two bodyguards on June 14 in a suicide bombing in Baghdad. They opened fire on a U.S. convoy the next day, killing two more civilian workers.

The insecurity gnaws at good progress. Pentagon auditors estimate that $5 billion of the current $21 billion U.S. reconstruction budget could be spent on security. The need to restore decrepit and destroyed civic structures, both Iraqi and U.S. authorities recognize, is key to the country's future.

Surprisingly, most nonmilitary workers in Iraq-including volunteer aid workers-aren't going away either. Asked whether he plans to return to Iraq, Mr. Williams quickly replies, "Absolutely."

His nondenominational church, Grace Fellowship, is working in partnership with Operation Mercy to deliver on humanitarian projects in southern Iraq, including the Nafaj area where security concerns run high. Lacking a defense contract and a bodyguard budget, such projects must rely on local goodwill and in-house security.

A faith-based worker near Najaf, a non-Westerner, helps Operation Mercy and others to lay strategy and offer advice before proceeding with medical and sanitation projects. When the militia organized by Shiite radical Moqtada Sadr kidnapped several Western workers, that contact was able to negotiate through local Shiite leaders, who successfully pressed Mr. Sadr for their release. "I know God has opened the door," said Mr. Williams, "and as many as can go over to help these people out will find the window is small but the need and the payoff is immense."

Mr. Greene's humanitarian efforts are paying off, and he has yet to visit Iraq. After hearing from Mr. Williams, he discovered that all the water systems he had sent to Iraq were in use. Somehow the filtration devices wound up in the hands of U.S. Army and Marine units, who took the liberty of installing them where they saw need.

So within days he received two e-mails, one from an Iraqi doctor and another from a U.S. lieutenant colonel. The doctor, chief of a hospital in Wasit province south of Baghdad, wrote to thank him for the purification system he had unknowingly donated to the hospital. "It was handed over to us by the coalition forces and connected by their engineers," the doctor wrote Mr. Greene. "This unit will solve a very old problem of bad quality water supply to our hospital. We feel that we are very indebted to [sic]. God bless you and thank you very much."

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