Hoping for magic from Americans

The Iraqi government still can't provide its citizens with basic security and services. So many look to Americans -- for everything.

By Anna Badkhen
May 15, 2008 7:55PM (UTC)
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May 13: A retired teacher whose furniture was stolen. A 6-year-old girl whose stomach hurt. A man wounded by a stray bullet in 2004 in northern Iraq. Another man who wants a surgeon to examine his hand, disfigured in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. Scores and scores of people whose houses haven't had power for weeks.

Anyone who needs anything in Iraq goes to the same place: the Americans.


Five years after the war in Iraq began, the country's army and police force are still not ready to effectively provide security for the country, and its government is unable to provide such basic services as power, running water, and fully functioning sewage and garbage cleanup. Hospitals are overcrowded, and many doctors have left the country. So most Iraqis look to Americans, whom they see as the source of ultimate authority.

"A lot of Iraqis expect that Americans can touch something and make everything work," says Capt. Andrew Betson, whose company patrols the streets in southwestern Baghdad.

American troops have certainly been the source of many recent improvements here. In the past year, they have spent $154 million on improving an area about the size of Orlando, Fla., and home to 870,000 people. They built a compound where the district council meets for $4 million. They have distributed scores of $2,400 grants among businesses looking for start-up capital, and given out countless school backpacks and soccer balls. They are paying neighborhood authorities and are helping them figure out how to make sure that the little electricity that their areas are entitled to -- usually about four hours a day -- actually gets to the people. Their medics often examine the sick when they go on patrols.


But compared with prewar life in Baghdad, the area still has a way to go, acknowledges Lt. Col. Johnnie Johnson, commander of the 4-64 battalion of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which operates in the area.

"The only investment that is happening is coming from us," he says. "It's our investment in the security of this region, if you want to call it that. But it's not enough to rebuild the country."

The Iraqi government, Johnson says, has been doing a poor job of drawing investors and a poor job of distributing the resources it does have to improve the life of average Iraqis.


"I'm disappointed in the leadership," he says. "As much as I feel sorry that you are not able to provide for your family, it is not our responsibility to provide you with your livelihood. It's your government's responsibility."

Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, the West Bank and Gaza. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, David Filipov, and their two sons.

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