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Iraq: In One Provincial Town, Iraqis Wait For Aid

Musayyib is a sleepy provincial town located some 70 kilometers south of Baghdad. Populated mainly by Shi'a Muslims, there is no resistance to the presence of coalition troops. Residents of Musayyib say they were hoping the fall of Saddam Hussein would bring new resources to their shabby, rustic town. But more than seven months later, the streets of Musayyib remain unpaved, hospitals and schools are badly in need of repair, and local police are scarce and ineffective. City officials say they are in desperate need of reconstruction aid. But none appears forthcoming.

Musayyib, Iraq; 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Abed al-Hamza is frustrated. Al-Hamza is the mayor of Musayyib, a small, mainly Shi'a town that has seen better days.

The streets are dirty and in disrepair. There are no sewage facilities. Schools are run down and new hospital facilities are needed urgently. Musayyib has been this way for years, the mayor says. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, residents had hoped U.S. reconstruction aid would provide the town with a way out of its state of squalor. But al-Hamza says he has yet to see any American money or aid flow into Musayyib. "There is nothing I can do," he says. "Just sit at this table and complain. No, no, they didn't give us [money]. The Americans have given us no assistance. They didn't give us any financial assistance. We have no city budget. We have nothing."

Many residents of Musayyib run small businesses to make ends meet, but al-Hamza says no one pays their taxes or utilities. Electricity and water bills have gone unpaid since March, and city officials have only now begun to negotiate with townspeople to pay what they owe.

Another problem, according to the mayor, is security. He describes the local police as corrupt and "useless," and says while serious crimes are rare, petty theft and street crimes are commonplace, even during the day.

"It's a nightmare, the police force we have here, and I want the whole world to know this fact," says al-Hamza. "We are stuck with these policemen. It's not the bribes I am so upset about but the fact that on the whole they are not fulfilling their duties. I don't know why."

Captain Abbas al-Ambari is the head of Musayyib's police force. He says the police would like to do their jobs, but that they are powerless -- something for which he blames the U.S.-led coalition authority.

"The police force in Musayyib has received no [American] aid except the clothes that we are wearing and unfulfilled promises to give us simple weapons," he said. "The [Americans] gave us sticks, so that we could hit citizens with a stick."

But sticks, he says, are of little use in a town where most residents carry machine guns and groups of insurgents have mounted attacks on coalition troops nearby. "We need good weapons, heavy machine guns," al-Ambari says. "Right now we don't even have a way to protect ourselves."

The situation in Musayyib is hardly unique. Billions of dollars have been pledged to Iraq to help the war-torn nation rebuild. But questions remain about when and if the aid will be delivered -- and how long it will take to trickle down from major cities to provincial towns like Musayyib.

So far, the town's hospitals and schools are the only places to feel the benefits of outside aid. All have been given a fresh coat of paint. The situation inside the buildings, meanwhile, remains desperate, especially at the hospitals, where painkillers and surgical equipment are in short supply.

Abbas al-Hami is the manager of Musayyib's emergency hospital. He says most of the cases the hospital sees these days are symptomatic of the country's postwar chaos: gunshot wounds, landmine injuries, and other such accidents. But although some help has been provided by the U.S. Army, it is not nearly enough, he claims: "They came only one time. They brought us five air conditioners and four water coolers."

But al-Hami says as much as hospitals like his need money and support, he recognizes the danger of allowing cash and other resources to flow into the country. No matter how good the intentions of the donors, he says, aid money must be watched with extreme vigilance.

"Now we must not give money to any Iraqi person," al-Hami said. "And if you give money to an Iraqi you must watch it. If you don't, the money will go [straight] into our pockets."

Iraqis have suddenly become obsessed with painting buildings, al-Hami says, by way of illustrating his point. "The first thing they do when they get [aid] money is paint something, and then suddenly they say there is no more money left. It's as simple as that � they buy low-quality paint for a few dollars and say they paid thousands. The rest goes into their pockets."

This is one scheme of many, al-Hami says, adding: "If it continues this way, millions of dollars will disappear and nothing will change in the lives of ordinary people."