Military leaders, diplomats, politicians, influential businessmen and shaykhs came together for an informal dinner to celebrate President's Day at Contingency Operating Station Endeavor, Feb. 24, 2010.

The Najaf Provincial Reconstruction Team invited key leaders in the province to attend a face-to-face meeting with their U.S. counterparts in a relaxed setting.

"It was a nice reception with a good theme," said Angus Simmons, team leader for the Najaf PRT. "We had a good cross-section of Najaf society attend. It was really just a good chance to sit down and get to know one another as friends. In my experience, personal relationships lead to great cooperation."

According to Lt. Col. Jon Lukens, the PRT's deputy team leader, the province of Najaf benefits from these relationships in a variety of ways. Lukens is a member of the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade and currently attached to the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.

As U.S. diplomats have focused on helping Iraq improve its agricultural base, its ability to draw tourists and its educational system, their U.S. military partners have assisted their Iraqi counterparts with training and security.

Najaf recently opened the largest civilian-operated airport in Iraq. Operating 24-hours a day, the airport is now supporting at least 27 flights daily. During the recent holiday of Arba'een, over 20,000 religious pilgrims flew in to the airport for the holiday.

Religious holidays, such as Arba'een, and places like the Wadi al-Salam - "The Valley of Peace" - cemetery, the world's largest cemetery, present Najaf with unique tourism opportunities.

With a major airport, the city of Najaf is expanding its tourism potential by promoting the construction of more hotels and other places for tourists to stay.

"This area is one of the most important religious sites for the Shia faith," said Lukens. "Now that the country has opened up, it should have no problem attracting [tourists]. With the airport operational, it is set up perfectly to accommodate the large numbers of people that want to come here."

In addition to promoting tourism, the Najaf PRT and the 3rd HBCT have been working with the Najaf agricultural departments to help promote farming with drip irrigation and green house projects.

"We are providing training and micro-grants to ensure that the farmers know how to maximize these systems and get the best crops," said Lukens.

Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd HBCT, have been instrumental in helping the Najaf PRT process the applications for these grants.

"We are totally synced in with the 3rd Brigade and they have supported what we are doing in many ways," said Simmons. "They have done a wonderful job of helping us distribute CERP [Commander's Emergency Response Program] funds, and providing us with security and transportation."

In the coming weeks, the Najaf PRT is hoping to help open three health clinics in the area, distribute more small business grants, aid Najaf's largest college, Kufa University, with the construction of several buildings on its campus and expand the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) Center's ability to train and test English teachers and students.

With all this in mind, Simmons is excited about the future for Najaf.

"As a city, Najaf is very open and welcoming to people," he said. "The citizens see themselves as the center of religious pilgrimage, learning, business and commerce. We just hope to help them with that."

As the leaders of Najaf plan their expansion, their U.S. counterparts are hoping that the informal President's Day gathering will be another step forward.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16