U.S Steps up Social and Cultural Outreach

American troops have begun intensifying “humanitarian, cultural and social" activities across Iraq following their recent withdrawal from the country’s cities, marking a shift in strategy from the primarily military tasks of the past six years.

Umm Asama is one recipient of new U.S army programs. The forty-year old, mother of two, who was widowed two years ago after clashes erupted between gunmen and U.S troops in Athamiya, has joined a sewing training workshop funded by U.S forces. “I joined the workshop to learn a profession to enable me to earn some money to provide for my expenses as well as my children,” Umm Asama told Niqash.

This workshop is just one of many sessions aiming to help women supported by America. Across the country similar projects have been launched including a vocational program to provide 30,000 women in Baghdad with training opportunities, a business centre in Najaf and programs to qualify women to work in the health sector and other fields elsewhere. In early July a conference entitled "Empowerment of Iraqi women in Times of Challenge and Change" was organized at the Faw camp, near Baghdad Airport. The conference was attended by around 100 Iraqi activist and lawyers. During the conference Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby announced that his troops have established five centres for women in Baghdad "to support widows and provide them with medical examinations, legal services, vocational training, literacy classes, and to provide women with opportunities for physical exercise."

Government reports and numbers issued by the Ministry of Women's Affairs suggest that there are now close to two million widows in Iraq.

According to Greta Holtz, a U.S. diplomat and director of Iraq's provincial affairs office, supporting women is one of America’s main goals in Iraq. Holtz, who is responsible for assisting provincial governments providing communities with basic needs such as water, roads and schools, said that U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “is always asking us what we have done for women in Iraq."

Sectors such as education, health and the economy will now be among the priorities of the U.S team working in cooperation with international organizations such as USAID, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and other non-governmental organizations.

Meanwhile, parallel to social and humanitarian projects, U.S troops are also organizing sports and cultural outreach projects across the country. Regular football matches between Iraqis and U.S troops now take place and the cultural and scientific cooperation team at the U.S. Embassy is providing local assistance to hold fairs, art performances, exhibitions and music concerts.

The most recent activity was a play, acted out by many of the country’s leading actors, called Assist a Nation, which sought to raise awareness of the dangers of the corruption that is rampant in state institutions.

The Hiwar gallery in Baghdad now holds U.S-supported exhibitions and according to two young artists, the step marks an American attempt “to build friendship with Iraqis after years of hatred and hostilities.” They both agreed that “regardless of the political aims, such activities will help young Iraqi men move away from violence and bloodshed towards culture and creativity.”

The humanitarian projects have been welcomed by the Iraqi government, many civil society organizations and those involved. Although she did not know it was being funded by the U.S army, Umm Asama told Niqash that her sewing course could salvage her future.

Yet, others are more suspicious. Shatha Naji, a women’s activist, told Niqash that U.S projects are "cosmetic and aim at cleaning the dark image of occupation as perceived by Iraqis over the past six years." Naji, who works for ‘Women for Peace’ added that "U.S. forces believe that they can make people forget their acts of killing innocent citizens, widowing women and their other acts in violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights."

Nonetheless Naji did acknowledge that the new projects could well positively benefit Iraqi communities and society’s most vulnerable.