MUJADEED, Iraq – Small white buildings sit randomly among untended fields like some sort of unnatural plant. Men in kuffiyahs move bricks and construction supplies. Little girls play among piles of discarded plastic wrappers and water bottles.
This collection of three villages outside Khalis in Diyala province was once the site of fierce fighting. Al Qaida in Iraq arrived first in 2007, targeting the Shia who lived there. The Mehdi Army responded, killing Sunnis.
The residents, Shia and Sunni who long lived as neighbors, fled across the country.
But now about 250 families have returned, lured by new homes and the prospect of infrastructure and economic projects. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has already built 172 homes, each just one bathroom and a bedroom. The American military is paying for renovations to the school, a regrading of the main road, drip irrigation systems and a water pumping station through its Commander’s Emergency Response Program.
The villagers hope to grow vegetables, including some for export. They also hope the water projects will help nourish their orchards and vineyards.
“Because this place is Shia and Sunnis living side-by-side, they’re receiving this assistance” said Capt. Andrew Maggard, the civil-military officer for Fort Lewis’ 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. “The U.S., the UN, the Iraqis want to show that people can live in the same neighborhoods with no problems.”
But one villager wanted to vent to the Americans. He had a family of nine, and he didn’t know how he could fit everyone in the 23-square-meter home. He’s told the mayor, the provincial council and even an advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Lt. Col. Chuck Hodges, the 1-23 Infantry commander who was on a daylong tour of civil-affairs projects across his battalion’s area of operations, told the man the United Nations planned on building a newer, bigger set of homes in February. Until then, he wasn’t sure how else he could help.
“I don’t have any pull with the UN,” he said. “But I agree: Things won’t always be easy around here.”