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In Iraq, Government Rebuilding Falls to Reservists

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In the provinces of Iraq, the critical task of rebuilding local government rests largely in the hands of US Army reservists. In Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, about 30 reservists are struggling to meet the needs of more than a million Iraqis. NPR's Kate Seelye visited the provincial capital, Baqubah.

KATE SEELYE reporting:

Outside the Rafidain Bank(ph) in downtown Baqubah, some 40 miles north of Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers line up in the heat. They're picking up their first $60 payment from US occupation authorities since the collapse of the former regime. Overseeing the payment is civil affairs reservist Major Sandy Fox.

Major SANDY FOX (US Army Reserves): So I believe that you were in the military, but I cannot pay on a fake ID.

SEELYE: An IT project manager based in Southern California, Fox displays an unflappable calm despite the chaos around her. Many of the former soldiers, she says, lost their military IDs. Because they can't pick up their money without one, she adds, many have purchased fakes and they're easy to spot. She chastises one astonished Iraqi for wasting 7,000 dinars, about $5, on a fraudulent ID card.

Maj. FOX: I'll tell you what. I'll make you a deal. If you go get the guy you bought this from, I'll give you your 7,000 dinar back, plus I'll give you $60 and you won't have to stand in the Rafidain line. You go make a citizen's arrest.

SEELYE: Fox is one of some 30 reservists based in Baqubah. These civil affairs reservists are largely responsible for running the town's affairs, as well as addressing needs elsewhere in the province. According to Fox, their jobs include helping form city and town councils, setting up banking and court systems, sorting out agricultural problems and rebuilding damaged public properties.

Maj. FOX: We're like the first step. We're like the first brick of the house. I think that it takes a long time to rebuild a government; it takes a long time to rebuild people's confidence and we're the first bricks that helps to put the foundation down.

SEELYE: But civil affairs teams aren't normally shouldered with such an enormous responsibility. Most reservists train mainly in emergency and refugee aid, as well as basic infrastructure repair. In Iraq, the US is undertaking its largest nation-building effort since World War II. Major Nancy Quintero(ph), a nurse from Kansas City and a member of the Baqubah team, says her unit has had to learn some new skills fast.

Major NANCY QUINTERO (US Army Reserves): There is a book that says, `This is how you assess an area,' but there's no book that says how you do it. This just comes with experience. But we've been doing it.

SEELYE: But it's clear that Quintero and her team are having to improvise as they go along, and some reservists admit that the demands placed upon them are overwhelming. Outside their base, hundreds of Iraqis gather every day behind a tall, iron fence, clamoring for assistance.

SOUNDBITE OF IRAQI GROUP

SEELYE: Without a local government, Iraqis have to turn to the Americans to resolve a multitude of problems from land disputes to financial needs. A war widow in a black chador begs to know when she'll receive her husband's pension. Working with a translator, reservist Dennis Vanway(ph) does his best to reassure her she'll get it soon.

Mr. DENNIS VANWAY (US Army Reserves): Explain to her the 15th, but it may be pushed back to the 20th because there's some confusion about the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Finance--who's paying.

Unidentified Translator: OK. OK.

SEELYE: Vanway says too often there are questions he just can't answer, and that's frustrating. It's even more frustrating for the Iraqis. One man, a former intelligence officer, says he's been told every week for the past three weeks that he'll soon be paid. He says he's so angry he's ready to launch an attack on the compound. Major Ed Lupimak(ph) says it wouldn't be the first one. He says his team has already experienced several mortar and grenade attacks.

Major ED LUPIMAK (US Army Reserves): It's kind of a weird balancing act to focus on helping and then also focus on trying to protect yourself and your fellow soldiers in the evening.

SEELYE: Baqubah is a stronghold of Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the American military is not popular here. Back at the Rafidain Bank, an employee working with the reservists says he'd much rather see civilians rebuilding Iraq, like UN employees or Iraqis themselves.

Unidentified Employee: (Foreign language spoken)

SEELYE: `With the military doing it, we feel like we're captives, we're not free,' he says.

The reservists themselves are eager for civilian support, but until security improves neither members of the civil occupation authority or the UN will work in the area. In the meantime, an official with the occupation authority said the best solution for the military is to establish city councils as soon as possible to help share the enormous task of rebuilding Iraq. Kate Seelye, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.