By Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp, 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public AffairsOctober 26, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - With nearly three months in country, the Fires "Hell" Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, has been working with both Sunni and Shia local tribal leaders, local government officials and 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team to help improve agriculture and other critical infrastructure efforts in their area of operations.
The Fires Squadron, which is currently attached to 1st BCT, is responsible for areas including the Iraqi villages of Fira Shia, parts of Agar Quf and Al Thania to name a few.
One of their most recent efforts succeeded in getting irrigation water for agriculture flowing continuously in their area of operations for the first time in more than four years.
Previously, there was not sufficient water in the canals for farming above the subsistence level, according to Maj. Tim Hunt, Fires Squadron executive officer and a native of Dupont, Wash.
The effort to get the irrigation water running again began with the Fires Squadron meeting about three weeks ago with the Sunni and Shia tribal leaders and local government leaders in Fira Shia to discuss agriculture and essential services along with other issues.
"We wanted to attack problems that have been here for a long time," said Lt. Col. Robert McAleer, the commander of the Fires Squadron, who hails from Sequim, Wash. "In quick order we found experts in agriculture that the sheiks had brought to us and we started a small focused problem solving group to identify the problem. We met with a sense of urgency as the primary planting season is coming up."
"Luckily all the key people from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Irrigation were there and they were really motivated about getting good irrigation and true agriculture up and running in their zone," McAleer said.
In the meeting, the local tribal members and government representatives shared their reasons why they thought there were problems with agriculture related to irrigation. The local leaders' reasons included a local water pump station not receiving enough power to pump water into the canals along with Sunni and Shia rivalry issues and problems with the government's ability to provide services.
Upon closer investigation of the irrigation canal issue, the Fires Squadron leaders and the government officials paid an unplanned visit to a nearby electrical sub-station and discovered that a line at the station that was supposed to be used to keep the water pump station running was not being supplied power.
"We decided to explore what this meant," said McAleer. "Someone had not turned the water on because they felt (members of another sect) would be getting the water."
"Through questioning of the employees at the substation, we also found that the operators were making money selling power to local residents, so others were bleeding off the power which should have been provided for the pump station," said Hunt. "So we unveiled some corruption to get power back to the station."
The 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment which shares parts of its area of operations with the Fires Squadron and in which the sub-station resides assisted in getting the irrigation canal water turned back on by getting the power lines fixed. And according to Hunt, 1-7 Cav. has also been making routine visits to the sub-station to ensure the power continues to flow to the water pump station.
Hunt and McAleer said they are already seeing changes and happy farmers.
"You can already see things turning green that were dying," said Hunt.
"In meetings we're being thanked for helping with the irrigation," said McAleer. "Many of the people get nostalgic about farming which takes them back to their roots and they're excited about getting back (to it)."
As they work with local Iraqi government experts in the fields of irrigation and agriculture, the squadron has also been teaming with the 1st BCT's EPRT, which brings the assistance of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Some of the follow-on steps to getting the water running for irrigation include helping with seed and fertilizer distribution for the upcoming planting season.
"Our goal now will be to help get the farmers seed and fertilizer to revitalize the agricultural economy of Iraq," said Hunt. "Agriculture should pump about $2 million into the local economy and then they can start to trade and export and that's a huge benefit for the people of Iraq for something as simple as running water."
There are also goals to establish farmers associations which will help increase agricultural productivity through cost sharing, distribution and marketing.
The farmers will be assisted with funding and long-term and capital investments through the farmers associations which will help the Iraqi farmers to replace tractors, plows and tills that were destroyed or stolen during the war.
Besides agriculture, the Fires Squadron will work on projects designed to stimulate the economy through the establishment of small businesses.
"One of our projects will be working to open a business center in the Qadas that are on the border outreaches of military and political lines where there's not a lot of representation," said McAleer. "We will take advantage of what the EPRT and USAID have to offer to enable business men."
"Soon we should see a propane plant up and running and businesses in Fira Shia have gone from zero to 20 newly opened shops. (The business center) will be on a Shia/Sunni fault line for people to meet and those with ideas that they can pitch can at least have a conduit to get business done," he added.
The Fires Squadron will also be looking into revitalizing economy in the area by examining former state-owned enterprises that used to operate in the area during Saddam Hussein's regime to include a concrete factory and other businesses that while stimulating the economy can also put people back to work.
"We will assess them one by one and determine whether there is a considerable benefit to bringing those back to life, and we think the answer is yes," said McAleer, while also explaining that the assessments will be made with the cooperation of the local government, tribal leaders and the Ironhorse Brigade's EPRT.
Another project to help things in the area will include fixing some of the local area roads.
"Half of the roads have huge craters which have created obstacles, so we're going to rejoin the road networks so Sunni and Shia can cross into each others areas to do business," said McAleer.
But getting life back to normal in the Fires area of operations doesn't just include bringing back the economy, agriculture, essential services and roads-it has a lot to do with bringing back the people.
"Something that is an entirely Iraqi-led effort will be our working with the Iraqi Army's Muthana Brigade to help them re-settle about 150 families who were displaced a little over a year ago," said McAleer. "The truth is that many of their homes are rubble now, but this is something the Iraqi government has programs for."
"The good news for them is that both the local area Sunnis and Shias have stated a willingness to pitch in and help these displaced families with rebuilding their lives."
The success of being able to transition from a mainly security role to one of being able to focus more on rebuilding infrastructure and essential services has been a concerted effort, according to Hunt.
"This happening has all been due to the (Iraqi security volunteers) and the local people turning the tide against intimidation and terrorism and working together with the Coalition and the Iraqi Security Forces," said Hunt. "We could never have done this without that cooperation. We'd much rather spend 15 months here to help the people here earn an honest living than to have shootouts in the streets."
"We will continue to hunt terrorists who try to get in the way of these types of successes, but things have been fairly quiet for now and reconciliation is working well within our area," McAleer said, who gave much of the credit for security improvements in the area to his predecessors in the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment who working with the Iraqis helped begin the reconciliation process in the area and redeployed from Iraq back to Fort Lewis, Wash. just a little more than two months ago.