JAAFAR-AL-SAKAR, Iraq – The new $100,000 water pumping stations were meant to be a gift to Iraqis living in this rural community just outside Baghdad. Instead, the simple gesture sparked a major dispute between rival tribes.
American soldiers are finding that the task of reconstruction in Iraq is about more than getting the job done — the rest of the battle is learning to cope with a social system far different than anything they have experienced.
Navigating through the maze of tribal loyalties and rivalries will be a crucial test for the U.S.-led coalition as it continues to push ahead with rebuilding Iraq after years of armed conflict, repression, U.N. sanctions and economic ruin.
"We're still learning," sighed Maj. Brent Perley, 40, with the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion (search) based in Greensboro, N.C. "We've made a point to go meet all the local sheiks and tried to spread out the projects."
Perley is in charge of evaluating a local community's needs. Then he doles out hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to Iraqis to build everything from schools to clinics to water stations. That's when things get complicated in an area split between seven sheiks and five tribes.
"I hear it all the time. 'They have one so I want one.' I keep saying that it doesn't work like that," he said.
The tribalism in Iraq is not quite as marked as that in Afghanistan, where blood ties and tribal allegiances determine everything. But outside the main cities, in the smaller towns and villages that dot the country, tribal chieftains have the run of the place.
The latest problem began when a local contractor Sheik Khidir Abbas Khidir, who heads the al-Jabani tribe (search), was chosen to help build five water pumping stations for the community. But rival tribe Albu Issa objected, saying they wanted their own contractor to do the job on their land.
"Last month, when we spoke to the contractor, he said he'd been threatened and his men had been told to leave the area," said 1st. Lt. Patricia Weinstein, 25, of Williamsburg, Va. "We tried to talk reason — that it didn't matter who did it because the whole community would benefit. But we found out it did matter."
Perley, a reservist from Kernersville, N.C., whose regular job is with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (search), said the rules of Iraqi tribal customs "are not in any book."
"We're running into a situation now where we may have to build a separate water station for just 500 people," he said.
The large amounts of money involved in local contracts add to the problems, said Weinstein. "Initially, the sheik had approved our choice, but then his people attacked him for it. They were looking at the money to be made."
Perched along the Euphrates River, Jaafar-al-Sakar is a small farming community, with date palm trees lining the road and plenty of potatoes and bananas. However, like in the rest of cash-strapped Iraq, money is in demand.
The difficulties cropping up here are not isolated ones, said Master Sgt. Alberto Rodriquez, 39, of New York City, who has traveled around Iraq teaching cultural awareness. Tribes have become increasingly territorial in getting contracts for civil projects in their area.
"It's the same throughout the country. I think they believe the liberties may not last long so they're trying to get as much as possible. I try to stress that we're here for the long run," he said.
"It's a matter of getting the sheiks together and pointing out the importance of getting projects done for the whole community. But we've also had to compromise, like hiring someone from a different tribe to be involved in the project somehow, as security or maintenance," Rodriquez said.
Until then, there's the problem with a new medical clinic, located on al-Janabi tribal land and completely refurbished for $18,000. It was built to provide medical service in an area where the closest hospital is 20 miles away. But some of the other tribes have said they will refuse to go.
"They're not into community sharing. We built a medical center but they won't recognize it. They want their own," said Perley. "I suspect they'll use it when they need to."
Not all the tribal customs have proved so inscrutable. Their community work lands Perley's unit regular invitations to lunch or dinner in the community — lavish feasts of roast chicken and aromatic rice with raisins.
Evenhanded and open, he's been dubbed "Sheik Perley" — so well-liked in the community that he doesn't shop at local stores because storekeepers give him cases of soda, food, and even TVs for free, refusing to accept payment.
On a recent two-hour luncheon hosted at a principal's home, Perley worries that he's not spending enough time on his projects.
"Sometimes all this eating keeps us from doing our work," he said. "But then you remember this is how they do business here."