Dillow's Iraq: Fragile peace in Laguna Niguel's sister city
Two cities could not be more different, yet they share a bond.
Gordon Dillow
The Orange County Register

AL-QAIM, IRAQ – They're an unlikely pair of sisters. In fact, it would be hard to imagine two less similar "sister cities" than Al-Qaim, Iraq, and Laguna Niguel, Orange County, USA.

Laguna Niguel, with a population of 65,000, started out as a "master planned community" in the 1970s and was incorporated as a city in 1989. Al-Qaim, an utterly unplanned community of some 150,000 people, situated on the banks of the Euphrates River on the Syrian border, dates back to antiquity.

The per capita income rate in Laguna Niguel is $40,000, with median household income about $90,000. In Al Qaim, an average worker makes about $2,400 a year, assuming he can find work at all. One seldom sees flocks of goats and sheep on the streets of Laguna Niguel; in Al-Qaim, an agricultural center, they're a common traffic-stopping occurrence.

And yet for all the differences between the two sister cities – they've officially been sister cities under the sponsorship of Sister Cities International since last fall – the people of Laguna Niguel and the people of Al-Qaim share the same hopes and desires as people the world over, a desire for peace and prosperity.

But achieving that desire has been a little tougher for Al-Qaim.

Just three years ago, in 2005, insurgents had taken over the town, declaring it the "Islamic Republic of Qaim" and imposing a Taliban-style rule on the populace – no Western music, no Western clothing, severe restrictions of women, executions in the streets.

It took a bloody counteroffensive by Marines in 2006 to take back the city; you can still see the bullet pockmarks in many buildings. Since then, through a combination of U.S. military action, building up of local Iraqi security forces and millions of dollars in reconstruction projects, Al-Qaim, like so much of Al Anbar Province, has been transformed.

Houses are being built. Power lines are being strung. Cell phone and TV towers are going up. Satellite dishes sprout from rooftops. Markets are crowded. At the local bank the bank director proudly shows off his new ATM machine. Blue-uniformed Iraqi police (known as "IPs) man traffic checkpoints, something you never would have seen a few years ago; back then, they would have been immediately murdered.

"I love seeing the shops open," Lt. Mike Hussey, 25, a Marine civil affairs officer with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, who has spent months working with the Iraqis on reconstruction projects, says as we drive through town in a Marine Humvee. "I love seeing guys working on construction projects. It's progress."

"Thanks be to God, now Al Qaim is very secure and protected," the city's mayor, Farhan Tekan Farhan, told me through an interpreter. "We are seeing the benefits of reconstruction from the past three years. In the next three years we hope to see much more."

True, not all is well in Al-Qaim. Unemployment is high, electric power is in short supply, building materials are expensive.

And although I felt perfectly safe strolling through the market area without my flak vest and helmet – something I never would have done a few years ago -- Lt. Hussey was less enthusiastic. He knows there are still bad guys out there – and he was probably thinking about how much paperwork there would be if something happened to me.

Still, the city is quiet – too quiet for some of the young Marines I'm with, who, being young Marines, say they wish they could see more action.

But if the peace is fragile, if the security situation is still a work in progress, every day of peace enables another day of rebuilding.

And although it's a half a world away in distance, and light years away in living standards, the city of Laguna Niguel is trying to help. Mayor Paul Glaab says the city has sent a container of medical supplies for the Al Qaim hospital, and soccer balls for youth programs. The city also hopes to host Al Qaim's mayor for a visit to the U.S.

The mayor here appreciates it.

"Please give my thanks and best wishes to the mayor and the city council and the people of Laguna Niguel," Mayor Farhan told me.

"Please tell them this city is their friend."

Contact the writer: GordonDillow@gmail.com