A Ramadan feast celebrates possibilities
BAGHDAD — Amid plates overflowing with food and an atmosphere of conviviality, local officials and American soldiers on Tuesday night welcomed the end of the day’s Ramadan fast and the dawn of what many cautiously hoped would be a new era for Iraq.
The announcement of the passage of the Iraqi constitutional referendum Tuesday afternoon added extra levity to the already boisterous feast, which drew about 30 soldiers and local elected leaders.
The Iraqis present voiced unanimous support of the referendum results, although many pinned their hopes on the Dec. 15 elections, when Iraqis will vote on new national leadership.
Sheik Majid Mohammed, a member of the Sindabad neighborhood advisory council, said he was pleased, but cautious, about the constitution’s success.
“It was very good news,” said Mohammed, a Sunni, through an interpreter.
The current Shiite-heavy government, however, “is not good,” he said. “The Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense, they hurt the people. They are not good for such a position.”
“The problem,” he said, “is there is no role for the Sunnis in the government, just for the Shiites.”
Diyala neighborhood advisory council member Saad Al Jebori was also cautious in his predictions.
“Nothing’s going to change” as a result of the constitutional referendum, he said. “But after the [Dec. 15] election, maybe something.”
Also invited to the feast were members of 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division of Fort Stewart, Ga., which has worked with local leaders to provide security.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Steven Merkel, said leaders and residents in eastern Baghdad have, overall, taken an optimistic turn over the last year.
“The biggest change is in the attitude of the Iraqi people themselves,” he said. “There’s hope. There’s hope for the future of Iraq. There’s excitement … about what tomorrow holds.”
It seems fitting, somehow, that the nexus of this change in Baghdad is located inside a gaudy symbol of the former regime. Members of the Karada district advisory council meet weekly to discuss local and national issues inside a home formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein’s oldest daughter.
Signs inside the heavily gilded, velveted and marbled mini-palace attest to a shift in the way business is done in Iraq: “Services are Free,” “Please No Gifts,” and the oft-ignored “No Smoking Inside the Facility.”
But the Iraqis’ single biggest concern — security — remains at the forefront. Many Baghdad residents voiced concerns that the nation’s security problems won’t necessarily abate after the Dec. 15 election.
“We just feel afraid of one thing: that the next elections will pass and the coalition forces will have to leave and the situation will get bad again,” said Thaar Mussen, a 36-year-old contractor from Zafraniyah who attended Tuesday’s feast.
When told that coalition forces did not intend to stay in Iraq permanently, he nodded in assent and looked at a nearby soldier.
“After 50 years, it’s OK, you can leave,” he said.