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The GI's weapon of choice in Iraq: dollars

Congress recently allocated $180 million for aid to be disbursed directly by US soldiers.

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In November, the deadliest month for US soldiers in the occupation of Iraq, angry and sometimes desperate calls began streaming back to the US from commanders, complaining that the government wasn't giving them what they needed to battle an intensifying insurgency.

But the front-line soldiers weren't calling out for more ammunition, armor-plated Humvees, or night-vision goggles. Instead what they wanted was a little money, enough to restart the Commander's Emergency Response Program, or CERP, a decentralized aid program started shortly after the US occupation began.

The grants, ranging from as little as $1,000 up to $30,000, were designed to get money flowing back into the economy fast. Potholes were filled, schools refurbished, and irrigation canals - choked off by weeds and silt for decades - restored in 12,000 projects across the country.

The project started with found money, the bundles of $50 and $100 bills that advance units found in Saddam Hussein's palaces as they rumbled into the country last spring, but was quickly expanded when front-line soldiers began reporting back that it looked like their best weapon in combating the insurgency. Between May and the end of October, about $80 million was spent.

The hardest month

But then the money ran out in the middle of October, and the casualties began to mount. There were both funding problems, and also concerns within the centralized Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad that it didn't have enough oversight of the program.

In November, when little CERP money was available, the coalition casualty count soared to 81 dead from 42 in October and 31 September. In December, after the funding tap was turned back on by congress, which allocated up to $180 million for the program in its 2004 supplemental spending bill, about 40 US soldiers were killed.

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