Marine team keeps Fallujah imam honest

By Geoff Ziezulewicz, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Friday, February 8, 2008

FALLUJAH, Iraq – One generator for the mosque: $2,000.

One water tank for the mosque: $1,000.

Donation to an imam at the mosque: $3,000.

Getting Sheik Abid Abbas to ‘fess up to what happened to the rest of the $12,000 that the Marines gave him to fix up the mosque: priceless.

It isn’t clearing houses or finding roadside bombs, but Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steven Townsley has a job these days in Fallujah that is taxing in a different way. He gets to try and coax the truth out of guys like Abid, the son of a prominent sheik in the Jumaily tribe.

Townsley is part of a Civil Affairs Group. The teams, each with 15 Marines, line up contracts to residents and businesses in Fallujah in the name of getting this war-ravaged city back on its feet.

To date, CAGs have doled out about $10 million in reconstruction money, Townsley said.

Those Marine reconstruction dollars have become a hot commodity since security improved here in the past six months, and Marine Corps leaders in Anbar province have credited that money and security for the turnaround in Fallujah.

One day last month, Townsley, of Jacksonville, N.C., was trying to get Abid to admit to where the rest of the $12,000 for mosque renovations had gone.

Abid had previously claimed that the uninstalled generator, water tank, some paint, a shed for the generator and water tank as well as a $3,000 donation to the imam had gobbled up all that dough.

Townsley said he contacted the contractor involved in painting the mosque, and the contractor — who handles many jobs for the Marines — said he painted the mosque for free.

When the CAG checked with the imam who leads the mosque, he confirmed the contractor’s story and that the water tank and generator were never installed.

Townsley grew more exasperated when he found out Abid, who was paid for the work in October, had bought a used generator to boot.

As Abid and his son began shouting back and forth with the Marines’ interpreter, Townsley struggled to make his point.

“That cost 100 [expletive] bucks,” he said to Abid of the paint job in the mosque’s main room, as an interpreter noted that the room didn’t look freshly painted.

As the Arabic and English flew back and forth to mutually deaf ears, Townsley worked to make one point.

“I’ve been contracting in Iraq for a year,” he said. “I’m not stupid.”

There are occasional hucksters when it comes to reconstruction money, he said, but nothing like this.

“I’ve never had a problem with a mosque project,” he said.

As the argument wrapped up, Capt. Steven Eastin — whose Company L of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines is in charge of the area — gave Abid an ultimatum that stood in stark contrast to the “make nice with the locals” strategy that Marines are pursuing in the city these days.

“You have five days to come up with $6,000 or I’m coming to get it from you,” he said.

“All $12,000 to the mosque,” Townsley said to Abid. “Not a single frickin’ dollar in your pocket.”

Later, Eastin said the threat was largely a bluff.

But if Abid didn’t pay, they’d take their case to the burgeoning Iraqi police, he said, and ban Abid and his father from receiving any more reconstruction dollars.

A legal document was signed for the money, Townsley said.

But in a tidy resolution a few days’ later, Abid handed the missing loot back to the Marines.

Townsley said he wasn’t fooled for a second by Abid’s accounting schemes.

“We know how much this stuff costs,” Townsley said.