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U.N. goes stealth to help rebuild ISIS-ravaged Iraq

Reconstruction in Iraq

WASHINGTON -- U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are close to tearing the city of Mosul out of ISIS' stranglehold. Once they do, the sprawling city will join dozens of other towns and villages that need to be rebuilt virtually from the ground up. A vast swath of northern Iraq is reeling from violence and destruction that has forced almost 900,000 people to flee their homes in the last year alone.

Efforts to bring those Iraqis back home are robust -- and unique; the United Nations has more than 800 stabilization efforts underway across the country -- work the U.N. has done in many countries following many conflicts. But this time, the work is aimed at building confidence in local governance as much as it is at rebuilding Iraq's shattered infrastructure.

U.N. equipment and supplies are not stamped with the instantly-recognizable blue globe insignia, and local Iraqi contractors are carrying out the work in the name of the Iraqi government, rather than foreign contractors. The U.N.'s new strategy is designed to minimize the promotion of its own work, and to instead quietly facilitate a "for the country, by the country" reconstruction.

"The Iraqis coming home don't necessarily know that it is the U.N. that is helping them. They see that the government cares for them and the government is doing things for them," Lise Grande, Deputy Special Representative of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, tells CBS News. "That helps to reinforce a sense of confidence in the government; as citizens, they need to know that the government is for them."

Iraqi forces make final push to drive ISIS out of Mosul

Rebuilding and reviving ISIS-destroyed towns means wires running along dusty neighborhood roads, connecting small, efficient electrical grids to homes to bring back electricity. It means temporary piping to give residents water to bathe and cook upon their return. The makeshift, temporary nature of the repairs means many liberated Iraqi towns look a little messy, but it is a mess in the name of vitality, not destruction.

The efforts are deliberately scrappy because speed is a priority. The day that Ramadi was liberated the UN brought in 71 mobile grids. They were operational in 2 hours. Each was able to connect to 250 home each meant a large portion of the city had power immediately. The idea is simple: if there is power and water displaced families are more likely to come home. Once they are home, the desolate towns begin social revival.

The small stabilization power grids won't be the long-term fix. But setup is fast and they do not require the high-in-demand inputs like cement. While they are working to light up homes, efforts to repair the larger power grid gets underway.

Grande has been on the ground for two and a half years and she is in constant contact with all members of the Iraqi government across the country to push forward and get effective stabilization efforts up and running. She has been on the ground for the UN in India, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Veterans of wars in the Middle East view this overall approach positively. They note that the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan followed a very top-down approach, which proved to be a failure. The Iraqi government has proven a reliable partner in the U.N.'s effort, which helps facilitate operations on the ground. 

The U.S. State Department has shone a positive light on the U.N. stabilization efforts, which have the global body working with both the Iraqi government and other coalition partners on the ground. 

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert noted this week that schools are back in session in parts of eastern Mosul.

"That is a success, and a real testament to the hard work that the Iraqis and our coalition partners have done as well," Nauert said, stressing the importance of getting children back into the classroom.  

"If you are going to have success in Iraq people have to see a reason to have faith in the central government. Whatever happens in the UN name is never going to deal with sectarian, tribal and ethnic tensions," says Anthony Cordesman, a former U.S. government advisor who is now an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He sees the current U.N. strategy as a means of building trust in the central government of Iraq, increasing hopes for long-term stability.

U.N. workers on the ground say Iraqis themselves are ready to go to work once they get home. In many cases, they have spent their life's savings just staying alive; moving to safe areas and finding food and shelter for their families. That means when they can return home, they want to be part of what Grande calls the "renaissance."

ISIS mounts bloody last stand in Mosul

She says the locals are eager to help, especially when the faces leading the charge are familiar to them. This year in Fallujah, a local businessman working with the U.N. started to hire widows who had no other source of income to help build a new secondary school. He knew the local market and the local people -- innate insights that a large multinational company or organization would have been without. It was a brave move; women in the workforce is still a taboo topic to many Iraqis.

There have been failures with a handful of local contractors, but the minute they violate the terms and conditions of working with the U.N., they are cut off.

Grande says there is no slowing down. Last month it took just 10 days for the U.N. to add 200 stabilization projects in Eastern Mosul. In Fallujah the main water station has been completed and is now bringing safe water to more than 60 percent of the city. The effort took months to complete, "not years," Grande points out.

Despite an expedient stabilization effort, daily fears of not being able to support the huge number of displaced Iraqis haunt on-the-ground efforts. As the final push for Mosul rages, the number of Iraqis fleeing the city is on the rise every day.

The U.N. relief effort has just barely been able to handle the 6,000 to 8,000 civilians fleeing Mosul daily. The displaced are met at 19 camps on the outskirts of the city. But there are still more than 100,000 Iraqis trapped inside the Old City, where ISIS holds about a square mile of ground, and money is urgently needed to keep up with the demand.

"If very large numbers of people come out (of central Mosul) all at once, we would struggle to cope. Every single day I worry this is the day that 30,000 people will come at once," says Grande. "We are just one step ahead."

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