September 1, 2008

Newspaper article that describes PRT's work.

Can't link this article to the Bangor Daily News, so am reproducing the article below, because it does explain what a PRT does.

Diplomat hopeful, sees Iraqi progress
Wednesday, August 20, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

Kenneth Hillas, the Provincial Reconstruction Team leader in the Babil Province in Iraq, joined Iraqi leaders during an Earth Day date palm tree planting ceremony earlier this year in the city of Al Hillah where he is based. Hillas, a 1976 graduate of the University of Maine, is working with the PRT to rebuild the physical and political infrastructure in the province which is located just south of Baghdad. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Hillas)

(Photo courtesy of Kenneth Hillas)

The situation in Iraq has improved in the past several months, according to a career diplomat with ties to Maine.

If that trend continues, it could signal the start of a reduction in the U.S. presence in that country, said Kenneth Hillas, the team leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team serving in Babil province located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers just south of Baghdad.

Hillas, 55, is a 1976 graduate of the University of Maine and serves on the board of the newly created School of Policy and International Affairs at the university. He also owns a home in Penobscot, although his family is living in Alexandria, Va.

Hillas joined the State Department in 1980. He is a senior foreign service officer and served as deputy chief of mission in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and in Warsaw, Poland, until this spring when he volunteered to join the PRT effort in Babil.

"It looked like a valuable effort," Hillas said Monday in a telephone call from Al Hillah, where he is stationed. "I thought it would be rewarding professionally and personally; and when a friend in the State Department asked me about it, I decided to do it."

Hillas completed a four-month temporary tour of duty in Babil this summer and returned recently to begin a one-year tour there.

PRTs are special units that work in conjunction with Iraqi leaders on security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. While U.S. military units concentrate on security issues, Hillas works mainly with political leaders on a variety of projects that affect the lives of the residents of the province.

The PRT doesn’t actually do the construction work, although the military units often work on some projects. The team members are specialists in different areas and assist Iraqi leaders as they work through the process.

"We help coordinate, plan and execute the projects," Hillas said.

The projects are as varied as the needs of the people: fish stocks for the local aquaculture industry; hospitals and equipment; a cold storage facility for local farmers; and facilities to provide potable water to about a half-million people in the province.

They’ve also helped to build about 20 schools in the region.

"Saddam Hussein took all of the teachers out of the schools and put them in the army during the 1980s and the war with Iran," he said. "The education system fell apart."

The literacy rate dropped from 65 percent in 1980 — two years after Saddam took power — to 45 percent in 2001, Hillas said. Since Saddam was ousted, more teachers are being trained and the literacy rate is beginning to improve, he said.

The Iraqis — not U.S. taxpayers — are now paying the bills for much of the reconstruction work, according to Hillas. With demand for oil high and the price of oil high, the Iraqis don’t lack for money, he said.

"They have enough money," he said. "It’s the ability to get projects conceived and generated, implemented and executed where they need experience. We’re trying to help them do that."

Security is an issue, and Hillas said the situation is improving as the country becomes more stable. Violence is down, although he stressed that there are still dangers from suicide bombers and from the improvised weapons that insurgents employ. Suicide bombings, though rare occurrences, still happen. But the northern part of the province, once included in the so-called "triangle of death," has become much safer, Hillas said.

"You couldn’t fly up there in a helicopter without getting shot at," he said. "I was there recently and I walked down the main street with just two soldiers with me. We’ve worked with the tribal sheiks there and the situation is dramatically improved. The rest of the province is gradually getting better."

The U.S. troop surge late last year, has helped, Hillas said, but it is not the only factor in the improvements on the ground.

"The surge was one of the things, but it’s not the only thing. The Iraqi security forces are improving in their capability and their intelligence gathering."

The U.S. troops no longer work in larger units, he said, but are now deployed in smaller numbers out in small camps where they are able to provide security for smaller towns and villages.

The economy is better — boosted by the demand for oil — and the political system is more stable as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has solidified his position. The country is poised for another election late this year or early next year, which could be a true indication of how the country is progressing.

Although the elections are being overseen by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, part of Hillas’ job has been to work with local leaders to prepare for the elections. The Sunni population — which largely boycotted the last election — are beginning to rejoin the political process, which is a positive sign, he said.

The Sunnis, although a minority in Iraq, held power during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Diplomatic efforts are slowly encouraging them to become involved again.

"They are starting to realize that we are not there to help the Shia exclude them from power," he said.

Hillas also said that efforts are under way to talk with supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who has opposed the coalition occupation of Iraq, and to encourage them to become involved in the country’s political system. Those discussions are delicate and can be deadly for Iraqis who cooperate with U.S. efforts, he said.

"It is dangerous for them," he said. "There are political risks and they have to be concerned for their personal safety. There are still extremists who are willing to kill people who are willing to talk to Americans."

Most Iraqis seem to be friendly toward the Americans and believe that they are not trying to establish a colonial occupation force in the country, Hillas said.

"Every Iraqi I talk to says the same thing: ‘Don’t leave us high and dry, not until the job is finished,’" he said. "They don’t want us to stay forever, but they realize that we’re not at the point where we can pick up and leave."

It won’t happen all at once, he said, and it will be important to get the transition process right, he said.

"I really think that it won’t be a long time before that day comes," he said.

1 comment:

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/02/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.