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Rebuilding the Bank to Encourage More Business in Iraq

The U.S. is funding the reconstruction of a bank in the town of Muqdadiyah in Diyala province, Iraq.

The town of Muqdadiyah in Diyala province was once a stronghold for al Qaeda in Iraq and their onetime leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. 

Shiites living in the town were driven out or simply executed, the market area became mostly deserted, buildings were scarred with bullet holes and rocket blasts.

A year and a half ago insurgents detonated a car bomb outside the city's main bank - it took weeks just to clear the rubble as the streets are narrow and getting dump trucks in was a challenge.

Now the U.S. is funding the reconstruction of the bank - almost $400,000 - and hoping it serves as a magnet for more business in the market. In the still-unfinished basement of the bank, right at the entrance to the new vault, we met Captain Jay Velasco from Tuscon, Arizona, who is in charge of the reconstruction project.

Velasco is an artillery officer, and he says that learning how to build a bank "has been a sharp learning curve."  It is his third tour in Iraq. First time around he was in charge of a team of bodyguards for the U.S. Embassy, and on his second tour he was partnered with an Iraqi Army battalion in Mosul - "which meant going around and getting shot at all the time." His wife wasn't too happy about that. He got blown up several times by IEDs, and when he finally got home he had two separate surgeries on his back to repair damage done by the blasts.

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But on this tour, Velasco, from the 25th Infantry Division, was pleasantly surprised to find how much violence had gone down in his new area of operations - Diyala province, north east of Baghdad. Velasco's boss, Colonel Malcolm Frost, directed him into assisting development projects.  Velasco first became an expert in poultry farming, and then began to learn the idiosyncrasies of constructing banks. The idea of funding the bank is to establish an institution that people will trust right in the heart of the market area in Muqdadiyah, thus encouraging more businesses to return and open for business.

Artillerymen, he says, "target things, and the cliche is you do lethal and non-lethal targeting. This is just another form of targeting and it is using money as the method of engagement."

The bank reconstruction project was well underway when Velasco discovered a potentially disastrous design flaw. The floor of the basement - which ran under the vault - was only a thin layer of concrete, something that could easily be penetrated from below. It wouldn't take an Iraqi version of Michael Caine or Mark Wahlberg very long to figure out a way to tunnel in underneath and make off with all the funds, so the design was substantially strengthened.

The bank is due to be finished by October. Velasco spends a lot of his time working in an office, poring over documents related to the bank and the other projects he is in charge of. After all the action of his previous tours, Velasco has had to adapt to the gentler pace of administrative work. But his wife isn't complaining. "She loves me sitting behind a desk. My wife celebrates desk work."

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