Basra reconstruction has Northwest flavor

BASRA, Iraq - The work of rebuilding this southeastern Iraq province has a distinct Puget Sound flavor.

The provincial reconstruction team leader is the son of a longtime Federal Way resident. His deputy is a mobilized reservist from Des Moines who works back home as a Seattle police officer. And the platoon of soldiers providing their security hails from a Fort Lewis artillery brigade.

The reconstruction effort recently brought all of them to the house of a prominent Basrawi businessman. Team leader John Naland and his deputy, Lt. Col. Jim Shearer, met over lunch with Hatem Al Barchary, who owns commodities trading, printing and agriculture companies.

They discussed economic programs throughout Basra, a region with seemingly unlimited economic potential that hasn’t been fully realized after years of security troubles and corruption. Al Barchary apparently wields enough economic influence to court the reconstruction team members.

“You hear all the time about Iraq and how corrupt it is, but this guy is 180 degrees from that,” said Shearer, a former Green Beret now serving with a reserve civil affairs unit from Portland. “He’s legit, and he’s in Iraq because he wants to be.”

Al Barchary and the reconstruction team officials sat in oversized, gold-trimmed furniture and talked over soft drinks on Jan. 2. A poster-sized photo of Al Barchary and Iraqi President Jalal Talibani hung on the wall.

They talked about renovations to the Basra airport and the hurdles they face with the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, which runs the airport. They discussed agriculture projects in the region, which once boasted millions of date palms before years of war left it barren.

They later gathered around a 10-seat table, where they shared platters of chicken, beef, rice, fish, shrimp, flatbread and more. They discussed the elections coming up in March: which party was gaining support in Basra, which politician was on the outs and what the new government might look like.

Each Iraqi province has a provincial reconstruction team, or PRT, with a State Department Foreign Service officer as its leader and a military service member as his or her deputy. The program began in 2005 and aims to improve governance, economics, infrastructure, rule of law and diplomacy throughout Iraq.

About 800 Americans work on these teams across the country, according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

PRT missions vary, Shearer said. Previously he has taken his team to the governor’s office, the provincial council, farms, factories and meetings with sheikhs across Basra.

Lawyers from the Fort Lewis 17th Fires Brigade work with local judges and police officers. State Department employees work to prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Getting to all the locations requires firepower – hence the escort from Fort Lewis troops. A platoon from the Fires Brigade’s 606th Forward Support Company rode in a convoy of five armored Humvees to the businessman’s lunch. Iraqi soldiers joined the Americans along the way, driving two Ford F-350 trucks with machine guns welded to the bed.

The convoy snaked its way through the packed streets of Basra, a hodgepodge of taxis, trucks, donkey carts and an occasional herd of sheep. They halted outside Al Barchary’s house and formed a security perimeter while the PRT members took off their bulletproof vests and helmets and walked inside.

The platoon gets to see a wider swath of the province than most other units, said platoon leader Lt. Katrina Twigg. And that often means a chance to witness the work of the PRT.

“Basra has done a 180 since we arrived here,” the New Jersey native said. “We see buildings being built, trash being picked up, water projects going on. More businesses are open. It’s a lot of progress.”

Shearer believes the province has the potential to become the economic powerhouse of Iraq.

“All the ports Iraq has are in Basra,” Shearer said. “Eighty percent of the country’s wealth comes through Basra. It should be the commercial capital of Iraq. And sometimes, it just feels like it’s on the cusp of getting there.”