Democracy, a tough course in new Iraq
FORWARD OPERATING BASE HAWK, Iraq — The ones who stood out first were the mayor, the imam and the sheik. The women, though, soon took over.
The mayor wore a navy jacket, the imam and sheik fluttered in turbaned and draped. The women wore floral-hued scarves. The mayor, the imam, the sheik and some stubbled men all took seats around the long table. Most of the women sat along the walls near the children.
The 20 or so people were the council and notables of Iraqi Village, a settlement of squatters in the Abu Ghraib area, and last week they had grievances.
Maj. Patrick Barry, executive officer of the 303rd Armor Battalion of the Washington National Guard, would listen to them all for hours.
The villagers didn’t really own the land upon which they squabbled — they just took it over after Saddam Hussein fell. Barry described it as Iraqi government property, but the new government allowed the squatters to form an unofficial town council for now.
The council would gather at the Forward Operating Base Hawk when things got out of hand, and ask the Americans for help. Their enthusiasms for voting combined with verbal jousting, talk of real violence and want of a strong man showed a people in search of democracy, but wanting desperately to impose their will upon the other guy nonetheless.
During the course of the meeting, the mayor would prove defensive, the imam would maintain pious distance from this thing called democracy, the sheik would pine for the days when he was held in highest esteem. The women in scarves, initially demure, would vent.
The village mayor had seized the daycare and installed his wife as principal and had hired his daughter-in-law, too, some said. The mayor said she was the most qualified.
Another man said the council sent him a letter threatening to use him as a human shield. The women of the daycare complained that the mayor’s son showed up to the school brandishing an AK-47.
“Well, OK,” Barry started. “Did anyone send a threatening letter that we should know about?”
“Sending threatening letters is a big deal, and I want to find out what’s going on.”
Someone said the council did not send any such letter: “This is a note when someone is out of order, and goes outside the rules,” an interpreter explained.
The man who was disciplined by the letter had somehow interfered in the brouhaha over the daycare and something to do with sports, and was told to mind his own business.
A woman in a lilac scarf fired off a staccato burst in Arabic. There is nothing to the letter, she insisted.
The square-jawed major listened, fingers locked in front of him on the table. Beside him sat his civil affairs officer, 1st Lt. Glenn Allen. Sgt. 1st Class Richard Allen studied things from the back of the room.
After much heat, everyone seemed willing to forget the letter. “So there’s no problem,” Barry said. “Let’s move on.”
Then it was on to the charge of nepotism. The women usurped by the mayor’s wife said they ran the daycare just fine in the past, and not only that, they griped, the wife was something like 60 and too old to run a daycare. It was all just like the Ba’athists, they said.
The mayor said he could have installed his wife a long time ago if he was so devious, but he did not.
“Excuse me,” a woman called out in English.
An apparent council member piped up, and Jimmy Samo, a civilian interpreter, translated: “We are run by people without education, without a degree, without being civilized.”
Three men, apparently the mayor’s supporters and including the man with the letter, stood up to leave. There was noise and shuffle. A woman accused the lot of flashing an AK-47 around at the school. The men eventually sat back down.
“Let me ask you this,” Barry said. “Who is best qualified to run the daycare?”
One woman, apparently one of those fired, said she had experience with UNICEF. Then the staccato woman handed over signatures calling for a new election.
“He is running things like a dictator,” she said of the mayor.
“There’s apparently a split in the council,” Barry said. “No council is perfect. But we have to come to a place where we aren’t stifled by our disagreements.” Soon it was a tsunami of gesturing hands backed by grimaces. They asked Barry to choose.
“If you’re opposed to these five people,” Barry said of the new daycare staff, “tell me what names you’d put there instead.”
The mayor said his wife had a graduate degree in education. Why couldn’t he hire her when she is wise and he the mayor?
“Someone’s going to have to compromise,” Barry replied.
The mayor told the major he wanted him around more often.
The imam, who mostly sat gaunt and silent but whose presence felt like that of a stern recess monitor, spoke at last. The imam said something to the effect that he was a religious man and this business of politics was a dirty one. He had turned down a council seat himself. His law was the Koran.
“I appreciate your comments, and understand that religion is a lot less messy than politics,” Barry told him. “You have the ability to walk above a lot of the mud.”
The imam nodded and smiled.
Barry told the council the mayor should side with them most of the time, and should act alone only when he really believes in something.
This made the opponents angry. They brought up the mayor’s son and the incident with the Kalashnikov.
One, two, three hours passed, and then more. The afternoon sun would droop in the sky toward evening. Barry kept asking who should run the daycare. The lieutenant had to leave. The major would stay.
Democracy, it turns out, takes time and compromises, voting instead of shooting.
The dark-turbaned sheik, face round and bearded, said things were different before this chaos of voting for a mayor. Back then, he was in charge. He braved danger and dealt with outlaws and never complained. Why have the people abandoned him?
It was difficult for a foreigner to follow, an opera in another tongue. How did Barry do it?
Sgt. 1st Class Allen, still sitting in back, said it could be done if you treat it like football.
“We basically had to put out a playbook on all this to keep track of everyone.”