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US troops pay Iraqis millions to reduce insurgence

TIKRIT, Iraq -- Cash has become the US military's first line of defense in some parts of Iraq, where US soldiers are distributing money to encourage goodwill and to counter their enemies' offers of money to unemployed Iraqis willing to attack Americans, according to officers here.

Even patrol leaders now carry envelopes of cash to spend in their areas. The money comes from brigade commanders, who get as much as $50,000 to $100,000 a month to distribute for local rehabilitation and emergency welfare projects through the Commanders Emergency Response Program.

There are few restrictions on the expenditures, and officers acknowledge they consider the money another weapon. The targets at which it is aimed are the restless legions of unemployed Iraqi men, many of them former soldiers, policemen, and low-level members of the Ba'ath Party of ousted president Saddam Hussein. They were put out of work when the US administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, ordered a de-Ba'athification of Iraq. US soldiers say those men are vulnerable to entreaties to carry out an attack on the Americans for pay.

"I have met two guys now who say, 'I don't love you and I don't hate you. But somebody's offered me $200 to set up a mortar or a [roadside bomb], and there's a bonus if we kill you,' " said Lieutenant Colonel Randall Potterf, the civil affairs officer for the Army's First Infantry Division.

Major General John R.S. Batiste, the division commander, said restive central Iraq is full of men who "are young, unemployed, without hope. We are trying to reach out to them. Whenever we get the money, we are trying to apply it to pull over as many of these men as we can to our side."

His local commanders have the go-ahead to dish out tens, hundreds, and thousands of dollars with little more paperwork than a signed receipt. Often, the cash is paid in return for a promise to perform a small community project, but it is also given to Iraqis to buy items they say are necessary.

Captain David Krzycki, 35, a company commander operating on the outskirts of Tikrit, recently plunked down $350 to get local residents to haul rubbish from their street and another $770 to clean out an irrigation ditch.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey A. Sinclair, commander of the First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Tikrit, said he had paid $500 to a driver to get his car repaired, paid "benevolent" money to the family of a victim of violence, paid people to clean streets, bought soccer uniforms for a team, and repaired a swimming pool, among other expenditures. Other officers have given money to ice cream vendors, chicken farmers, and hardware suppliers to get their businesses going.

"I'm trying to give them something to do rather than take shots at someone," said Sinclair, who said he gets $50,000 every three or four weeks to distribute. "It's not bribery. It's priming the pump. And it works well."

For more than a year, the Commanders Emergency Response Program was funded with $105 million taken from Iraqi reconstruction funds. But the Defense Department has agreed to begin paying for the program and has requested $300 million as part of its fiscal 2005 budget request.

The projects are "never going to get them to love America," said Potterf, the civil affairs officer. "Nobody is going to ever be waving an American flag. But I just want them to be neutral, to stop planting explosives."

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