US general seeks to create Iraqi jobs

( AP ) - Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch is a West Point graduate with a master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. In Iraq, he's also a fish farmer.

Violence in the region Lynch commands, including the so-called "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad, has dropped nearly 80 percent from a year ago. That, Lynch says, allows him and his troops to spend less effort chasing insurgents and more on helping the citizens rebuild their economy.

"I used to go to patrol bases and plan military operations. Now I walk around and talk to people," Lynch said on a visit to this city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

It was during one of those trips that the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division said he had "a life-changing experience." Local farmers said they needed jobs. "And I thought about how to teach them fish farming."

Whole fish, split open and then grilled upright, is a signature dish in Baghdad restaurants. Demand has been rising as security has improved and more people venture out.

But pollution, dams and years of mismanagement of the waters in past decades cut the once abundant stocks.

Lynch saw an opportunity. Fish farming is not unknown in Iraq and creating new farms there is relatively simple. Pools are dug near the existing system of irrigation canals and the farmer fills them with fresh water. Carp or other stillwater species are introduced and, when they're grown, farmers harvest them easily by draining the pools.

The fish farms are just part of what Lynch and his soldiers call "sustainable security." Once fighting in an area has been suppressed and Iraqi military and police take over, the U.S. troops look for ways to make it last.

"It's about how do we give these people a means to a job, so they are less likely to resort to the old ways of planting IED's," Lynch said, referring to roadside bombs. As he flew over the region in a helicopter recently, numerous large fish ponds could be seen glinting in the sunlight.

The military has given out more than 200 micro-grants worth about $750,000 to small startup businesses in the region. They have also pumped about $140 million into the local economy, assisting existing industries and rebuilding infrastructure.

As Lynch travels the region, the need for new jobs is easily seen.

Sprawling over the desert on the edge of Iskandariyah is a state-owned complex that had more than 4,000 employees and lucrative government contracts for building buses and other vehicles under Saddam's regime. The business collapsed in the chaos that ensued after the U.S. invasion.

Although its products are competitively priced and of good quality, it has had trouble finding customers. Managers who had a guaranteed buyer before the invasion lack the knowledge to compete in Iraq's new freewheeling marketplace.

To help turn the situation around, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey McKone has become a close adviser to plant director Sabbah al-Khaffaji.

A reservist who was a district sales manager for the Laboratory Corporation of America in Burlington, N.C., one of the world's largest clinical medical laboratories, McKone is teaching al-Kaffaji and his staff how to market and sell and link directly with customers on the Internet.

"In the past two months we have done so much with Lt. Col. McKone that we have not been able to absorb it all," said Nassir Abbas, leader of the vocational training school on the complex.

The school has become a focus for Lynch because it can train Iraqis from across the area. He hopes over time many of factories now idle will once again employ thousands.

Fear of violence once kept students away, and only about two dozen attended last year. But now there are about 450 and the school is planning for 1,000 by June. Al-Kaffaji said the school has had up to 10,000 applications.

Many of the trainees will be young men who have been part of the ethnic warfare in the region. And some once were insurgents who once fought against the U.S. forces in the region.

"We can't deny some Sons of Iraq (a Sunni group) were insurgents in the past and could be in the future," Lynch said. But "I am convinced the people of Iraq will return to their old ways if we don't give them jobs."

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