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Red Bull Division opens water treatment plants in Iraq

On Wednesday morning Iraq time, the 1/34th Brigade Combat Team and Iraqi officials toasted with pure, clean water the opening of Al Gawaam reverse osmosis plant.

On Thursday morning Bemidji time, Civilian Affairs Officer Maj. Jacob Kulzer and Sheik Mohammed Altai held a telephone press conference from Camp Adder in south central Iraq to describe the change the water treatment plant will make in people's lives.

The project is one of the many construction and rebuilding projects members of the Minnesota National Guard Red Bull Division are working on in Iraq.

"There's literally thousands of folks taking their drinking water directly out of the Euphrates River, which is highly polluted," said Kulzer.

The reverse osmosis plants near Al Batha in south central Iraq are ultra filtration systems which force water molecules to pass through a membrane, but filter out contaminants. The World Health Organization has cited adequate, safe drinking water as one of the most pressing health-related issues in Iraq.

"For the last 35 years, this is the first project ever done in this area," said Altai, an elected city official. "It was a very happy day for the whole area when we had the grand opening."

Altai spoke through an interpreter designated only by the pseudonym "Ralph" for security reasons.

Altai said the water treatment plant serves four villages with a combined population of about 5,000 people.

He said the 1/34th BCT has worked to open eight, furnished 12-class elementary schools, renovated 12 other schools and cover 120 kilometers of roads with crushed rock. However, he said clean water is "the best present for our villages."

"We are supporting our dear friends, the Americans, to get rid of the previous regime," Altai said. "We had a couple of elections in a very democratic way, even with the problem this country is going through with the insurgents and the terrorists."

Kulzer said the purified water is hauled in tank trucks to supply the villages. "We go from the Euphrates River to clean water going into the babies' mouth," he said.

Kulzer said the 1/34th BCT's 2,600 Minnesota soldiers range all over Iraq in combat units, but the construction team is based at Camp Adder in the south central part of the country. He said there is always danger, and soldiers have to be on alert. But the last 50 missions have been accomplished without incident.

"We spend most of our days outside the wire," he said. "We've been blessed with a very good working relationship with the local folks. Our area is not perfect, but 99 percent of the folks are good people."

All the soldiers have civilian skills, such as surveying and engineering, so they work hand-in-hand with the local officials.

Kulzer said his team first goes out to the villages to meet with local leaders and collect lists of their areas' needs. The lists are then refined at the district and provincial levels. The British officers at the Multi-National Division Southeast allocate the funding for projects.

"There's a lot of steps to it, but there's a lot of close coordination," Kulzer said.

With the funding available, he said they then call for bids and choose local contractors. Because the quality of the workers varies, he said they hire according to local officials recommendations. For example, he said Altai can name 14 generations of his ancestors who live near Al Gawaam, "so he knows everybody in the area."

Kulzer said the next big project will be to develop the infrastructure to deliver the water directly rather than by truck.

"There are a tremendous amount of good things that are happening," Kulzer said. "This is a complicated place and this is a very difficult mission ... but it's tremendously worthy of our time and attention."