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Monday, May 14, 2007

Maysan PRT promoting political, economic and services development

14 May 2007
Spc. Chris Erickson
U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

Security authority for Maysan province was recently transferred to provincial Iraqi government. The province was the fourth to do this, and marks a milestone of 75 percent of Southeast Iraq as being transferred to provincial Iraqi control. The province had previously been under the authority of the U.K. military.

The Maysan Provincial Reconstruction Team has worked behind the scenes in all this. Not only do they work closely with Maysan officials to create and strengthen transparent and accountable government institutions, but they also advise Iraqis on promoting development in the political and economic areas, and work to help improve essential services.

Julie Nutter, who has been the Maysan PRT team leader since the team’s inception in November, 2006, talked about why the decision to transfer authority in Maysan was made.

"The decision-making process follows several criteria that have to be met before the province goes to Provincial Iraqi Control," she said. "But in Maysan's case, the transition to PIC was really a formal recognition of what the Coalition forces already knew: that the provincial officials were able to provide security for the citizens of the province."

She said while the process was successful, it didn't come without challenges, some that affect all Iraqis and some that are unique to the area.

"Maysan has a long history of having security challenges in the province," Nutter said. "It was also one of the provinces that suffered under Saddam the most. The province has a significant population of marsh Arabs, and for example, when Saddam drained the marshes, he took the livelihood away from a significant portion of the population. We know that three-quarters of the Maysan province was once covered by marshes, and now only a quarter of those marshes remain. "

She explained how that affected the people of the province.

"What happened was, a lot of the ground that was drained was turned into desert," she said. "There's some arable land, but a substantial portion of the marshes that were drained are now desert."

She said a region-wide effort was going on to rehabilitate the marshes, and the last figure she saw for the whole of Iraq listed 48 percent of the marshes having been re-flooded and viable again. That could mean starting to return to the way of life many marsh Arabs knew before Saddam.

"There's agriculture and aquaculture," Nutter said. "Folks grew crops that can be grown in marshy areas, like rice. There's also some fish-farming that goes on in the marshes. And then people used things in the marshes, like reeds, to build structures, build their houses, basically."

A return to normalcy will take more than just giving farmers back their ways and means. Success also requires providing the Iraqi people with the ability to determine which projects are essential for their immediate and long term well being. Don Brown, Iraq Provincial Action Officer for the Maysan PRT, spoke about those challenges.

"The Maysan officials, just like most of the other new provincial government officials around the country, are relatively new to the concept of executing their own budgets," he said. "They've not traditionally had the experience that, for example, we've had in the U.S. of having strong state governments. Provincial officials are now finding their feet on budgetary issues. We're here to provide some technical assistance and help them navigate the new Iraqi central government's process for executing budgets."

Deciding how to use a budget can be a difficult process, especially when it concerns essential services. Nutter explained that while the Iraqis of Maysan province had trouble at the beginning, they were starting to shine in that aspect.

"One of the things Maysan is good at is allocating funds," she said. "They have been able to create the processes to determine what they have to do to get what they need for the province. They'll continue doing this, they're refining the process as they go along, but they have really good technical expertise in the provincial government.

“It's more an issue of uncovering that expertise and directing it, rather than creating it, because in a lot of cases it's there,” she continued. “What we're doing is we're trying to act as a catalyst and take that talent and to apply it toward, in a systematic way, the most important needs of Maysan. That's what I think is one of the biggest successes. We are a catalyst and that is an extremely important role, but this is the Iraqi's future, and they know that.

“They're really excited about that and they're eager to work with us,” she said. “I remember that at a seminar that we had, before the provincial development strategy seminar, one of the Iraqi leaders said to me, 'We would like Maysan province to become a model, for other provinces in Iraq to follow.' That to me, is the most hopeful comment that I've heard since I've been here."

Nutter said the PRT was in place to help provide guidance for the provincial government.

"Since the PRT started in November, we have been working on projects to improve essential services in the province," she said. "We've been working on a hospital to be built in Maysan, water projects to increase the purity of the water, the cleanliness of the water that people are drinking. And, we've been working on road projects that will enable people to get their crops to market to sell them."

Nutter said she was optimistic about the future of the province, and that she wanted to work to provide opportunities for the Iraqis that they didn't have before.

"I hope we'll be able to see a difference," she said. "The biggest difference that I hope for is that the provincial government, which had been very, very involved in the negotiations going toward PIC, especially the governor, will now be able to concentrate more on the provision of essential services for the people of the province. Maysan has some really big challenges in the areas of, for example, sewage disposal, health care, and water and electricity."

Brown said that one obstacle he saw being overcome was the difficulties the Maysanis have faced over the years, being a cross-roads of conflict. "These officials, at the provincial council level, at the governor's office, are stepping into unfamiliar territory, and are doing so with purpose and seriousness. That's something that's gratifying to see. We're at the nascent stages of this growth in capacity, and that's something I really admire most."

It takes more than planning to make a success happen, it takes people willing to make the planning pan out. Brown spoke about how working in a combat zone provides its own set of stresses, and working with this particular mix of people, seeing their accomplishments, was something he was proud of.

"One of the things that stands out for me is the quality of the people I'm working with," he said. "This is really interesting in that we are working with civilians, we're working with military people, in our particular case we spend a lot of time with Coalition partners, and in all of these circumstances, the people we find ourselves working with have all been top-notch."

The Maysan PRT, besides working with the Iraqis, the U.S. and Coalition militaries, draws on the expertise of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, US Agency for International Development, and the Army Corps of Engineers in its work.

"We've had a very close working relationship with these organizations and we couldn't complete our mission without them," said Nutter. "We have had very wonderful help from USAID and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers has helped us to work with the Iraqis, with the provincial government in determining, with economic support fund money, how best they could meet the needs of the province, right now. USAID is more on the training side, so the PRT teams up with USAID and we run things like the development strategy seminar. So they are full partners in the PRT process. We really couldn't do what we are doing right now without them."

Most recently, the PRT started working with the provincial government on a "Base Mapping" project for Al Amarah, the provincial capital, which will provide provincial leaders with digital tools to improve management of city services.

Brown spoke of how the accomplishments in Maysan could only be attributed to the Iraqis.

"In the end, the results will not be achieved by the PRT or U.S. or Coalition activity," he said. "The real results are in the hands of the Iraqis themselves. The Iraqi people are in charge of moving forward, on building the future of their province, at least in the case of Maysan. We, in our team, stand ready to assist, and we're really excited for the opportunities there are in capacity building and developing."

The Maysan team has continued its full range of engagement with provincial officials since the province transferred to Iraqi control, which occured April 18.

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