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James Soriano - Anbar Provincial Reconstruction Team
Posted by: McQ on Saturday, July 21, 2007

I had the opportunity presented to me this week to talk one-on-one with some members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) and Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (EPRT) who were going to be in Baghdad for a conference today. Scanning the list, and having spoken with a EPRT team leader the previous week, I put as my first choice James Soriano* who headed a PRT in Anbar.

I wanted him for several reasons. As stated I wanted to talk to those at the provincial level, not the EPRT level which is mostly local and municipal. A PRT works at province level, and while their tasks are somewhat the same, the level is what interested me. Secondly, James had been there for 11 months (and had a previous tour there in 03-04) so I figured he'd have a real sense for change within Iraq. Additionally he's an arabic speaker having had tours in 5 other arabic countries during his career.

It was a fascinating conversation, held this morning, and I couldn't help but come away impressed with the level of dedication this man brought to his job. In fact, as we were ending the conversation I ask him, "how long are you there for, Jim?". He answered, "October of '08. I've requested an extension. I'm taking Anbar home with me. It's just something that's gotten up my nose and I want to see it through."

His team of 30 people functions much like the EPRT I described in the post cited above but, of course, at provincial level. In fact, they do work with and support the EPRTs (there are 3 in Anbar - one in Fallujah, one in Ramadi and one "out west" - each embedded with a BCT or equivalent Marine unit). The PRT isn't "embedded" as is the EPRT, but instead "paired" with the US military command found at provincial level. A good analogy is they're the "division" level unit while the EPRTs are the brigade level units.

The team, while still not fully staffed, has seen a remarkable change in Anbar since their arrival. Known as the "Anbar awakening", it has allowed enormous inroads in terms of getting government, at at least the local and provincial levels, functioning again. He said the leaders are all levels are "very pragmatic" and he explained that by saying that meant they have shown a willingness to work with the US and central government and to work openly in that regard. That's a huge step in the right direction.

I ask him what he considered the single biggest obstacle to success from his perspective. He said, understanding that security was critical, that it was trying to reconnect the provincial government with the central government. And perhaps "reconnect" isn't a particularly apt description because the connection has really never existed. So just as the EPRT team leader told me he was helping Iraqis at their level connect with the provincial government by learning how to present proposals to provincial governments and how to put budgets together, etc., much the same is happening at PRT level with the provincial governments.

I mentioned the Interim Report just issued by the White House and how it discussed "bottom-up reconciliation" as a relatively new approach to solving this most vexing of political problems and ask for his thoughts on the subject.

He felt that "bottom-up reconciliation" was indeed in process and told me a story about how that has been enabled by the improved situation and the initiative of the PRT.

Soriano called their most successful initiative "helicopter engagement". In conjunction with the military headquarters there, and the BG he works with, they routinely fly members of the provincial council and the governor around Anbar province to meet and work with various town councils (which, until about 6 months ago, mostly didn't exist) in Anbar. He says the distances are vast, so helicopter is the fastest way to go and, despite all the changes to the positive, Anbar is still a dangerous place. These trips give the provincial level officials the ability to meet with the town and village councils, hear their problems and requests and discuss their solutions. Critical work.

The point he was making, however, is that these opportunities are now available where, when he got there, they weren't. The story he related, however, that made the point best about the "bottom-up reconciliation" concerned Anbar and a bordering province of Karbala. Anbar, as you know, is a predominantly Sunni province while Karbala is predominantly Shia. There has been some provincial border friction going on that needed to be settled and the PRTs in the two provinces, along with the US military set up a meeting between both governors at in Hila.

The governor of Karbala claimed that al Qaeda was using the Anbar desert to attack into Karbala. The governor of Anbar claimed that the police of Karbala were patrolling deep into Anbar and was concerned about a defacto land grab by Karbala province. As it turned out, the two governors were able to establish a joint security committee to address the problems. Additionally, the haj, a shia religious pilgrimage which passes through Anbar was addressed and a Haj security plan initiated. This happened 5 days ago. Of course the point is there is now a mechanism and a precedent for cooperation between the two provinces. The two governors now know each other, have met face-to-face, and have successfully worked out a solution to a problem. Again, a major step in the right direction. And this between members of religious sects which we're told can't get along.

So not only is the reconciliation progressing from the bottom up, but there's some lateral connecting going on as well.

The bottom line, however, is still pretty obvious and it centers in the central government of Iraq. And no one knows that better than James Soriano. It is there where the connection has to finally be made in order for success in Iraq to be achieved. The lobbyist for Anbar province, of course, is its governor and Soriano told me that they routinely take the governor to Baghdad to meet with the various ministers and other government officials. It is a slow process, but he reminded me that the central government is very 'young', just a little over a year old and that the experience level is still fairly minimal. But it is improving.

It is dedicated men, and women, like Soriano who are working diligently to help make that final connection critical to real reconciliation happen. Once that is accomplished, along with a stable security situation, the US can, at long last, seriously talk about withdrawing our combat troops.
_________________

*James Soriano leads the 30-person PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Anbar Province. He is a 22-year veteran of the Foreign Service. He has served in various capacities at the US Embassies in Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and India. He is currently on his second tour in Iraq, having served as the senior Coalition civilian official in Al-Muthanna province in 2003-04. In his Washington assignments, Jim has served in the State Department's Near East Bureau and in the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. In 1996-97, Jim served on as a professional staff member on the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations. He holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from Seton Hall University (1969) and a Master's degree from Georgetown University (1976). He is married and has twin nine-year-old daughters.
 
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Awesome report McQ. I think "bottom up reconciliation" is exponentially more effective at reducing the insurgency than a few papers being signed in Baghdad.
 
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