While considerable attention has been devoted to Iraqi reconstruction at the national and provincial levels, U.S. forces are leveraging their resources to advise and assist local Iraqi governmental bodies as well.

Such an effort is underway in the southern province of Dhi Qar. By combining the expertise of the Army's civil affairs teams and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to create a District Government Support Team, a host of governing issues have been addressed, helping to strengthen the democratic process at the city and village levels.

Soldiers assigned to Company C, 401st Civil Affairs Battalion, Task Force Pathfinder, are leading the DGST to reinforce local political effectiveness as part of the Army's first advise and assist brigade. They are a specialized group, trained to act as liaisons with host nation governmental, tribal and business leaders. They have extensive cultural and language training, often making them the first line of engagement between the military and their Iraqi counterparts.

Through their efforts and with advisory help from the U.S. State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams, civil affairs teams operating in Dhi Qar have built relationships with district councils.

First Lt. Adam Thomas, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., is the team leader of Civil Affairs Team 111, which operates in Dhi Qar Province.

"District councils throughout the province jumped at the opportunity to work with us," Thomas said. "They were extremely interested in learning how to forecast for future budgets and improve the delivery of services to their citizens."

During such a meeting with the Nasiriyah District Council in Dhi Qar, the DGST asked a round of questions aimed at understanding how the council operates.

The team was impressed with how enthusiastic the council members were in discussing their role, with one member saying they are accustomed to that question due to the local people's lack of familiarity with democracy.

What started as a learning experience for the DGST then shifted to identifying where project nominations have met road blocks. The council members described how currently all project nominations are small and originate at the sub-districts, and then are forwarded up to the provincial council.

The provincial council then reprioritizes them, based in-part on their budget from Baghdad.

Unfortunately for many sub-districts, the provincial council tends to choose projects with the greatest chance to affect a large number of people, preventing smaller projects from being approved.

Since provincial council support of U.S. reconstruction projects is a requirement in order to guarantee Iraqi government support and sustainment, the DGST leveraged their knowledge to recommend various courses of action, also offering their services for any future obstacles.

From the perspective of USAID, engaging local government at the district and sub-district level is a very practical and productive way to involve and empower them to better serve the communities they represent.

Efforts from the DGST will continue to lay the groundwork for an effective local government that has the potential to strengthen democratic values and improve the lives of countless Iraqis.