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Iraqi Army Called In To Patch Up A Ruined Nation

Basic services like water and electricity still need to be established in Iraq.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Fixing drains and filling in potholes are not classic military tasks, but Iraq's army hopes that sending soldiers on such mundane missions will weaken a stubborn insurgency as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw.

"We are resurfacing roads, putting up solar-powered street lamps...restoring services," Colonel Ahmed Khalifa, commander of the 6th Iraqi Army Engineers, told Reuters.

"We are saying, 'We're not here just to fight,'" he said, following a training session, in which U.S. Army engineers taught Iraqi soldiers how to mix concrete at an Iraqi base in Baghdad.

While the bulk of Iraq's much-needed reconstruction is done by private contractors, the Iraqi army is increasingly called in to do post-conflict stabilizing work: patching up buildings, smoothing out bomb craters, sweeping mines, and restoring power.

That presents a challenge since most Iraqi army recruits lack such skills and, although Iraq has thousands of skilled engineers, not many are available or willing to train soldiers.

U.S. army engineers have stepped in to help plug the gap.

With troops due to pull combat out of Iraqi cities by the end of June, ahead of an end to combat operations in August 31, 2010, the focus of the U.S. military mission is shifting even more toward training and equipping Iraqi forces to take over.

In the past, that has meant training recruits to shoot, conduct raids and foil bomb plots -- key skills, if Iraq is to quell an insurgency that is weakened but undefeated.

Now it also means training their Iraqi counterparts how to do things like fix burst sewage pipes.

"These stability type operations, providing generators to communities, say, gives a sense of normality and hope," said Brigadier General Owen Monconduit, commander of 225th Engineers.

U.S. military commanders have long seen restoring shattered basic services in Iraq as an important weapon against militants.

As the violence that has gripped Iraq since the 2003 invasion appears to subside, more Baghdad residents complain about their lack of electricity than their fear of militiamen.

Monconduit's engineers from the Louisiana National Guard are racing to train Iraqi Army engineers in carpentry and masonry. Some of them have first hand experience of emergency efforts to bring order to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Iraqis are frustrated at the slow pace of reconstruction and some fear new bloodshed, if efforts are not made to speed it up.

"This is still a time of war: services like electricity and water are ruined. The army must step in to build," said Khalifa.

Involving the army in reconstruction was a strategy the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, forged when he took charge in 2006, seeking to reverse the early U.S. mistakes that alienated many Iraqis and fanned the insurgency.

Iraqi army engineers hope to adopt that strategy themselves.