Trying to Fix Baghdad

When it comes to problems with water, sewage, trash, and more, Brig. Gen. James Milano is on the case.

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Brig. Gen. James Milano (center) and Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Dorko (right) tour a water pump plant and reservoir and sewage line project in northwest Baghdad.

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Corrected on 3/6/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the rank of Brig. Gen. James Milano.

BAGHDAD—The Abu Ghraib hospital was lucky, through government reconstruction funds, to receive a stereoscopic lens to allow the doctors there to perform surgeries on patients with injured eyes. And there are many such patients, given the amount of shrapnel that's flown around the neighborhood in the past five years. But the device sits unused on a small surgical cart in a dusty operating room because it lacks a mount needed to operate the machine. Brig. Gen. James Milano scowls at the all-too-familiar conundrum. "The sad thing about this is that we're five years into war and the reconstruction and this hospital is still back at ground zero. If only it was just in Abu Ghraib," he tells the doctor.

These types of problems are the general's daily grind, with an assignment that has placed him in charge of overseeing the restoration of essential services to the Iraqi capital; that includes electricity, hospitals, sewers, and drinking water. Yes, it's more peaceful than it was Dec. 1, 2007, when he took command, but Baghdad is a city devastated by years of sanctions and battles that continue to rage, if sporadically, in its ruined streets. "We don't need more of this 'we've turned the corner' stuff," says Milano, speaking in a calm and measured tone that his degree in chemical engineering would suggest but which belies the frustrating realities of his 16-hour days.

Before Iraq, he was primarily a staff officer, writing about the importance of convoy and base security in 2000 and inking a deal with the language software company Rosetta Stone in 2005 to provide Arabic learning tools to soldiers. Married with two children, he's now deputy commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which is responsible for Baghdad, and is practical to the point of bluntness: "To say we've got a lot of hard work to do here barely covers it."

Milano leaves the security of the series of American bases and combat outposts most days to survey firsthand the process of restoring Baghdad to a functioning metropolis. When he visited a sewage lifting station under construction in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood recently, a convoy of a dozen armored humvees escorted him, along with more soldiers securing the area around the large hole in the ground and the half-dozen Iraqi workers pouring concrete. If the project isn't completed on schedule in August, the local residents can look forward to another sweltering summer with tides of raw sewage flowing through their streets. "If we don't get the essential services done this year, I don't know when we will ever be able to do it," says Milano. "The infrastructure is degrading, the people have little faith that the central government can deliver, and the security window could easily close."

Not only can't the people of Iraq withstand another year like the last, it's doubtful that the Americans can either. Between last May and November, the American government supplied Baghdad residents with millions of dollars worth of bottled water. "We can't do that again," Milano says.

The problem of water is particularly acute. Eighty percent of the city's 5 million residents get their drinking water from a single reservoir. Only one of the facility's generators works—at about half its capacity, and only two of the 12 water pumps can push the water out of the reservoir. When it's too hot, the generator doesn't run at all. In the parking lot sit three tractor-trailer-size filtration units. But during their shipment from Jordan, thieves cut holes in the crates and stole the filters, rendering the units useless.

The Americans want to see the government of Iraq employ members of the largely Sunni "awakening" groups, many now being paid by the United States to help secure their neighborhoods. Getting those men to put down their guns and accept, say, a civil service job could cement security gains and increase employment. But the Shiite-led central government is making slow work of the task. Only a few hundred have been transitioned into the police forces or the army. Fewer still have made the change to civil service jobs like picking up trash.