Reconstruction teams work toward stable Iraq

U.S. advisers help rebuild nation's agricultural sector
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Reconstruction teams work toward stable Iraq

Combat operations are but one part of the strategy for a peaceful Iraq. Deployed throughout the country are 25 teams of civilian and military specialists working with Iraqi provincial leaders and communities to meet the needs of the local populace. Used first in Afghanistan, Provincial Reconstruction Teams are considered an essential part of the counterinsurgency as they assist the Iraqi government with delivering essential services while also promoting needed political and economic development.

Team projects vary from rebuilding schools and power generation facilities to creating stronger ties between local and central government officials. Teams will also train civil servants, equip women's centers, and provide micro-loans and grants to help new businesses get off the ground and create jobs. The number of members on a given PRT varies from 20 to 100. About half the team members are devoted to security while the rest handle civilian affairs. Support for the PRTs comes from a number of sources, including coalition partners, with the United States accounting for the bulk of it. According to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, PRT personnel in Iraq will more than double from 300 to over 600 members countrywide by the end of 2007.

Although Iraq is rich in oil, it is also a fertile country. Agriculture is Iraq's largest source of employment and the second largest contributor to the nation's gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Establishing a market-driven agricultural sector will strengthen private business, grow income and employment opportunities, and meet the food needs of the Iraqi people, the agency noted. Many of the PRTs include agriculture advisers working toward these goals. The nature of the projects depends on the geography of the area of operation, but they include food animal production, veterinary infrastructure, and water conservation and reclamation.

Three U.S. agricultural advisers are part of PRTs working in either Babil Province, a 2,497.3 square-mile area located just south of Baghdad with a population of more than 1.7 million people, or Baghdad Province, home to the nation's capital. JAVMA News recently spoke to them about their work in Iraq.

Logan Barbee has been with his PRT since January 2007. Barbee, an Army reservist, is a former agricultural extension field agent and director with the University of Florida. He is involved in projects aimed at revitalizing aquaculture, apiculture, livestock, and date production in the region. In addition, he's working to bring cold storage to as many as six Iraqi provinces. Cold storage is almost nonexistent in Iraq and would be a boon for area farmers, Barbee said.

Dr. Jessica McCoy is a major in the Army Veterinary Command. The area of Babil Province where her Embedded PRT is active is less developed than Barbee's and, until recently, was still hostile. Being in an Embedded PRT means Maj. McCoy is a member of the military brigade.

"We only just stopped fighting a couple of weeks ago," Maj. McCoy said. Her team is rebuilding feed mills and trying to put nearly 300 vacant chicken houses to use. Major McCoy is also working with local butchers to get them to build their own slaughter houses; in return, she is trying to provide them with solar-powered cold storage facilities.

"The butchers can't slaughter the number of animals they want to slaughter because they don't have the assurance they will be able to sell the meat before it goes bad," said Maj. McCoy, who's been in Iraq since May 2007.

Dr. Scott Willens, a major in the Army Veterinary Corps, was also deployed to Iraq this May. (A recording of Dr. Willens singing the national anthem and "God Bless the USA" was played at the Opening Session of the AVMA Annual Convention this past July.) Major Willens is assigned to an Embedded PRT that operates in the northern part of Babil Province in a predominantly Sunni area of a mostly Shiite province.

"We're right on the sectarian fault line," Maj. Willens observed. Despite these tensions, he is part of an ambitious initiative establishing a farmers market in the Euphrates River Valley. The market will feature a veterinary clinic, greenhouse, live animal auction, a butcher shop, and large capacity cold storage.

In addition, Maj. Willens' PRT distributes fliers in Arabic educating local Iraqis about water-, food-, and tickborne diseases as well as rabies.

According to all three advisers, Iraq's veterinary infrastructure is fragmented, incapable of providing disease surveillance, and prone to sectarian strife. Major McCoy recounted, "I have one government veterinarian, a Shiite, who lives in Baghdad, and it's fairly easy for her to get (veterinary) medications. But most of the private veterinarians in her area are Sunni, so she has to find ways of distributing the (drugs and) vaccines, which she does by meeting secretly with them to exchange the medications."

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Other parts of the area where Maj. McCoy's PRT operates have no veterinarians because they were either killed or were run off, she added.

And with nine veterinary schools in a country the size of Texas, Iraq's veterinary workforce is large yet stagnant. Because of the high unemployment among Iraqi veterinarians, U.S. veterinarians on the PRTs don't treat animals nor procure medicines and vaccines. Theirs is strictly an advisory role. "We'd be taking business away from them," Maj. Willens said, "so we do cooperative engagements that have an Iraqi face on them."

The U.S. veterinarians will, for instance, help their Iraqi counterparts get chemicals for sheep dip tanks and facilitate greater interaction between government and private veterinarians on shared agricultural interests. And when they do provide Iraqi veterinarians with an item or service, cultural etiquette requires the Iraqis to reciprocate.

"If I give them portable veterinary kits, then I ask that they get involved in their local agriculture unions and receive training from us," Maj. Willens said, pointing out that the training might be veterinary-related but could also involve tips on running a better business.

Veterinary medicine has been centralized for so many years that Iraqi veterinarians feel they can't make even modest changes. Major McCoy recalled a conversation in which the government veterinarian mentioned using her own money to buy syringes, because the government wasn't providing them. "I told her, 'You're already charging farmers for the medication; why not add on a couple of cents to pay for the syringes?' Her response was, 'How could you possibly be so cheap?' She said she couldn't do it because she'd be charging more than the government price for the medication," Maj. McCoy said.

Barbee and Majs. McCoy and Willens say their efforts are well-received by the Iraqis, most of whom are tired of the conflict and yearning for normalcy.

"I may be overly optimistic, but I don't get the same feeling here that I got from watching the evening news—at least I don't and the people I work with don't," Barbee said. "We can see changes occurring. (The surge) is starting to work, and you can see daylight, and there's a lot of optimism in the air."