Latest News

U.S. Army puts Kurdish fighters to work building houses for their own people

MOSUL, Iraq—The U.S. Army has gone into the housing-construction business in a corner of northern Iraq to help get Kurdish villagers out of shantytowns and put Kurdish fighters to work.

Along the way, Army engineers have learned a lot about what design would work. The houses should be made of cement, which stays cool in the blazing summer heat. They should have privacy for the modest Iraqi women, and plenty of room for goats.

Yes, goats.

"That came as quite a surprise to us," said Chief Warrant Officer Pat Harvel, 37, a member of the 926 Engineer Group from Atlanta, wearing a red shirt with "cowboy construction" written in yellow letters.

Harvel is part of a team of engineers designing the houses that displaced Kurdish peshmerga fighters will build in villages around Mosul. The peshmerga fought Saddam Hussein for years and cooperated with U.S. forces in the war.

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne Division, who earned a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton University, came up with the idea.

"It's a project that solves a lot of problems at once," he said.

Many of the men who fought to free the north are now out of work, no longer being paid by the Kurdish government. And there is a huge shortage of houses in Iraq for Kurds who were moved out of their homes under Saddam's 20-year campaign to displace Kurds in the north and replace them with Arabs, a policy that left thousands of Kurds living in shantytowns.

"We thought rather than have them make trouble in the streets we'll have them building houses, which demobilizes them and teaches them a skill," said Maj. Christopher Lestochi, 37, from Allentown, Pa., who's in charge of the project.

But initial plans for the $1,000 houses were met with grimaces from local people. The soldiers had sent engineers to look at typical Iraqi houses, but they missed some cultural cues, Lestochi said.

Engineer Harvel said he discovered that locals often lived with livestock in the house, so the doors needed to be wider. The initial design for the family room was all wrong, too.

"We designed the living room how we would in the states, with a big picture-type window," he said. But many Iraqis don't care for their neighbors watching them.


"We were beginning to see that privacy was a high priority for these people," he said.

The courtyard also had to be enlarged, to give goats and other animals plenty of room. "We thought they'd be using it for sitting and drinking coffee or eating breakfast," Harvel said.

He also redesigned the roof to make it flat, because many Iraqis sleep on top of their houses on hot nights. The new design has higher walls around the roof for privacy.

An unscientific survey of people in the small village of Kogeli, on the edge of Mosul, brought mixed reviews.

"Whatever they build for us we'll like," said Aziz Mohammed, 25, who shares a tiny rental house with his wife and child.

An Arab family down the road was skeptical.

"When we see the houses we will know," said Saher Gadir, 63, as he walked through his courtyard pushing cows out of the way. He studied the plan and said an 860-square-foot house was too small.

"We are used to living in big houses with our families," he said.

Gadir has four sons and their families living in his house. Small children peeked from behind a curtain covering a courtyard window.

We like big gardens, he said, pointing to the garden where he sleeps at night.

A Kurdish family across the way was more amenable to the design.

"It's very beautiful," said Sulyman Salim, 53, who lives in a cinder-block house in Kogeli with his family. But the house also appeared too small for him and the 20 or so family members who live with him. "We would all like to live together if possible."

Salim liked the idea of retraining the rugged peshmerga fighters. "We are tired of fighting," he said. "It's time for rebuilding and peace."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HOUSES