Young GIs open democracy's door, but will the Iraqi people walk through?
January 30, 2005
FORWARD OPERATING BASE WILSON, Iraq — Sgt. 1st Class Clifford Jackson, all of 28 years old, is in control.
“Are you completely comfortable with this?” Jackson asks as he grills Rafaa, a nervous Iraqi election worker, Thursday afternoon.
A successful election in a rural section of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment’s vast area of responsibility rests entirely on Rafaa’s ability to train a group of 40 sheiks. First Infantry Division officers based in Schweinfurt, Germany, recruited the sheiks at the last minute after poll workers quit in the sheiks’ villages.
“Which comes back to you,” Jackson says to Rafaa as he slapped his big hand on the election official’s small shoulder, using his 5-foot-10-inch, bulked-up frame to impress his point on the smaller Iraqi.
If Rafaa, who would not give his full name, thinks Friday’s crash-course training session on ballots and ballot boxes — only 48 hours before the elections — didn’t take, he needs to conduct it again, Jackson says.
Jackson has huge authority for a young noncommissioned officer. He is quickly mastering Arabic and has, perhaps, just the right personality to cope.
“I’m on the line between cocky and confident. Occasionally I cross the line to one side, sometimes the other,” he says, laughing.
Confidence, even cockiness, may be a desirable character trait when Iraq’s future — not to mention U.S. policy in Iraq — rests on shoulders of twenty-something soldiers and officers. If the election comes off in this area southeast of Tikrit, it will be because relatively junior troops across Iraq improvised and bluffed their way through endless complications, such as terrorists leaflets “from the Highest Messenger of God” promising death for those who vote.
Election workers quit. Sheiks come forward. But problem not necessarily solved.
Every plan needs a contingency because something is going to go wrong, says Capt. Brendan Dignan, 26. It’s analogous to any battle, he says. Senior officers develop the strategy, with junior officers and NCOs executing.
But no one — Dignan, the Troop C fire support officer; Jackson, who works with Iraqi troops at Forward Operating Base Wilson; Maj. Keith Barclay, the squadron executive officer; or Capt. Paul Krattiger, Troop C commander — has training for this. They’re improvising every moment.
In a Thursday meeting chaired by Dignan at a stuffy conference room on FOB Wilson, the sheiks have, in the words of one, “deep reservations about the election.” They want to know if the Iraqi election committee will even recognize them as legitimate representatives, which hasn’t happened yet. Can they even learn the election mechanics? they ask.
After all, elders tell a fresh-faced Dignan, they may be sheiks and community leaders, but they still are mostly illiterate farmers.
Dignan counters with wisdom and silken diplomacy beyond his years.
“Yes, but I know you to be wise men. I respect you as leaders of the community … and men of great intelligence,” he says. The government will recognize them, and everything is going to be fine, he says with quiet authority.
Everything is going perfectly, is his subliminal message.
But to Rafaa — who, it is becoming clear, is not meeting Dignan’s expectations — the captain is firm. Rafaa has to take control of the meeting.
“This is your deal,” he says bluntly to Rafaa. “I don’t want to talk.”
Rafaa, he continues, must explain the election materials so the sheiks can go home and teach their people how to hold the election. “That’s why you’re here,” Dignan says through a translator. “We discussed this yesterday.”
Rafaa reluctantly agrees to a brief interview, which boils down to his having pretty much no confidence that the election will even come off.
“We hope, Insha’allah,” he says, using the Arabic phrase for “God’s will.”
By Friday afternoon, the election process is collapsing. Iraqis find a bomb in a polling booth. Intelligence reports indicate the plan may be to blow up polling stations on Election Day. The Iraqis know that not everyone in the room will survive the elections.
“Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not next week,” one poll worker says. But maybe a month from now, insurgents will kill him.
As the mutiny grows among the election workers at Ad-Dawr, next to FOB Wilson, Krattiger sweetens the deal, suggesting soldiers in civilian clothes could provide additional security at voting stations.
“There will be more security out there than you can think of,” he says. “What we need is for you to be strong inside the polling areas to make sure the people can vote.”
“May I remind you you’re now part of history,” Dignan says quietly. “The whole world is watching … .”
Barclay arrives after noon to try to quell the mutiny.
It’s extremely unlikely that fellow tribe members will kill them, Barclay says. But as concerns grow, and more election workers balk, soldiers know that they have to instill confidence and courage.
Finally, in the early afternoon, Barclay pulls the mutineers aside for a Knute Rockne “are you a coward or patriot?” speech.
This is not about electing a president or prime minister, he begins. This is about electing the people who’ll write Iraq’s constitution.
“And a constitution is forever,” he says.
Fifteen years down the line, what will they be able to say they did “on the day of the first great Iraqi election?” Barclay asks.
“I don’t need guys who are going to quit on me when the going gets tough,” he says.
Finally, soldiers and Iraqis reach a compromise — election workers will only help voters, but won’t sign ballots. Iraqi soldiers will sign the ballots.
Despite working through countless such puzzlingly trivial nuances, 1st ID soldiers and officers stay stoked.
“The way we look at it,” Jackson says, “is that we’re part of the biggest step Americans have taken here.”