BAGHDAD – It is a politician's dream: Handing out cold, hard cash to people on the street as they plead for help. Iraq's prime minister has been doing just that in recent weeks, doling out Iraqi dinars as an aide trails behind, keeping a tally.
The handouts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a handful of other top officials are authorized — as long as each goes no higher than about $8,000, and the same people don't get them twice. Aides say they are meant merely to ease the pain a bit, and are motivated by a belief that better conditions will lead to more security.
The cash handouts are just one small — if eye-catching — part of a major investment push this summer by Iraq's government. The aim is to rebuild basic services and jumpstart Iraq's damaged economy by quickly distributing as much of the country's glut of oil revenue as possible.
U.S. officials and a fed-up American public are urging exactly that — for Iraq to spend its own money, not America's, to rebuild the country now that violence has eased.
Yet the new Iraqi effort runs a high risk of failure: The government is disorganized, fears of favoritism remain and the shadow of corruption haunts every step.
"Money is not a problem," al-Maliki told a recent gathering of tribal chiefs in the southern city of Basra, after government forces had defeated Shiite extremists there. "But we must put it in honest hands to spend."
Despite such problems, Iraq's oil revenues, an estimated $70 billion this year, still provide the best chance of leveraging the country's fragile period of calm into something more lasting, many officials say.
Top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus has repeatedly called money a crucial weapon to lure neighborhoods from extremists and stabilize Iraq. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, urged the government to pass out money even faster this week on a trip to devastated Mosul in the north.
The United States has been doling out cash itself, most effectively to former Sunni militants who switched sides to fight al-Qaida. The military has also provided money and assistance to projects like fixing damaged roads in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City after battles there.
Yet most recent big spending announcements have been Iraqi: $100 million to rebuild Sadr City; another $100 million to the Shiite city of Basra after fighting there; $100 million for another southern Shiite town, Amarah; and $83 million to help internal refugees return home.
It's unclear how fast the project money will actually get out. Past U.S. surveys have found Iraqi officials actually spent only tiny portions of the money they had allocated, often because of disorganization in government offices or a lack of technical know-how.
Also, discrepancies feed fears of favoritism. One violence-battered and needy northern province, Ninevah, which is mostly Sunni and Kurdish, has received only 20 percent of what the central government has promised, U.S. officials said this week.
Many of the provinces where al-Maliki, a Shiite, has recently pledged money are Shiite.
Yet there are signs of small improvement, other officials say. First Lt. Paul Horton, an assistant civil military operations officer in Diyala, a mixed area north of Baghdad, sees it in efforts to get government money to local farmers suffering from drought.
"We're starting to get a lot more attention and a lot more love," he said.
As for al-Maliki, Arab leaders have long used personal handouts to also gain political loyalty.
Most of the grants the prime minister gives out are only $200 to $400 to help those needing medical care, widows or people without jobs. On one recent visit to the riverside Abu Nawas park in Baghdad, he gave a group of boys each the equivalent of $40 in dinars to buy soccer balls. The biggest grants require documentation like letters from a hospital, his aides say.
On a trip last month to Amarah, an Associated Press reporter saw the prime minister approached by several supplicants during a meeting he was chairing of tribal sheiks. An aide from al-Maliki's office handed out cash at his direction, making each beneficiary sign a receipt.
Asked the reason for such handouts, a senior adviser to the prime minister, Sadiq al-Rikabi, said: "Citizens must realize that security is not just making the law prevail ... Reconstruction and jobs are a big part of it."