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The World's a Stage, Politicians Its Actors

Ghazalia Neighborhood Council chairman Abbas Khadam cuts the ribbon opening the council's newly refurbished chambers. (photo by John Goodman)

In a dimly-lit conference room -- decorated with dilapidated curtains that were probably considered fancy at one time and sparkly, dusty fake flowers -- civil affairs soldiers and Iraqi Army officers sat in plastic-covered office chairs to hash out the details of humanitarian aid missions and recovery assessments being conducted by both forces. Major Jumaa Saed Jasim, the apparent head of the Iraqi contingent, gestured theatrically as he spoke Arabic in dramatic tones, a translator mumbling his words back to the Americans in English. A few Iraqi soldiers were in the room with Major Jumaa, and all were wearing different uniforms. One man wore loose-fitting Desert Storm style camouflage fatigues, another the green woodland camo of Iraqi special forces (even though it was not likely that he was part of that unit). Major Jumaa sported a smart Aussie Army jumpsuit, its pattern resembling the patches of a giraffe.

The 425th Civil Affairs Battalion had sent two civil affairs teams from the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, led by Major Tom Downey --who has since received a promotion to lieutenant colonel -- and Captain Shawn Tobin. Captain Tobin was leading the American side of the discussion, his facial expression placid. Attempting to understand what was going on proved to be difficult. The Americans operate in an advisory capacity, and lining up the various units and agencies with their Iraqi counterparts can be tricky, as areas of responsibility don't coincide. Even within one government's own agency structure, jurisdictional overlaps are common. Captain Tobin suggested repeatedly to Major Jumaa that American and Iraqi units go out together on some of the quality assurance/quality control (QAQC) missions. The QAQC is necessary to ensure contractors doing rebuilding work are doing an adequate job, and although Coalition forces are rescinding their influence, they still have to keep tabs on the work that has been done. One of the interpreters explained that sometimes, the contractors are bribed, so oversight is necessary.

Captain Tobin's requests for collaboration were met with brief silence by the Major and a changing of the subject. His voice rising and falling, and his hand stuck purposefully in the air, Major Jumaa voiced his concerns about dealing with the Beladiyah -- which are municipal governments -- saying that they are protective of their jobs and resentful of Iraqi Army involvement in local affairs. "That's a fine balance you guys are going to have to work out to help all of Iraq," said Captain Tobin. Major Jumaa shrugged, making a face that bordered acknowledgment and resignation. "Moving forward, we want to make sure Iraqis are engaging Iraqis so that they don't have to go to Americans to solve problems," Captain Tobin continued.

Later, after we had said our ma'a salaamas and left the building, Captain Tobin explained to me that Major Jumaa has been a more direct communicator when he needs access to resources. From the perspective of American soldiers, mutual missions would seem to solve some of the communication problems inherent in a bureaucratic structure as complicated as this one, but there is speculation that Major Jumaa would rather operate without having someone looking over his shoulder. Regardless of these problems, both sides were happy with recent humanitarian work done with Iraqi Red Crescent, an organization similar to our Red Cross. Still, Captain Tobin noted that getting Major Jumaa and his troops outside the wire entailed having the Red Crescent's supplies brought out in trucks for a quick transfer.

Local Leaders

Money fuels the rebuilding process, and the newly refurbished neighborhood council building in Ghazalia is a testament to money well spent. Brightly painted walls, new furniture, and a ribbon cutting ceremony awaited the civil affairs soldiers who came out to view the progress and attend the event. The schedule wasn't set in stone, but that was a good thing. The convoy was late in arriving because of traffic delays -- Iraqi motorists have become used to the gargantuan MRAPs rumbling down the road, so most people are no longer intimidated by them. "I remember when all these cars used to just get out of the way," griped one soldier. But the Ghazalia Neighborhood Council was flexible, as Iraqi organizations tend to be, and the group rather casually slipped into a council meeting right after we arrived.

Before the meeting got too serious, I was invited to sit down and chat with Abbas Khadam, chairman of Ghazalia's neighborhood council -- with an interpreter of course. He greeted me warmly, and began sharing some of the problems faced by his council, chief among them being the abundance, or lack thereof rather, of job opportunities and affordable housing in the community. With rent usually costing the equivalent of about $130 per month, he said that many people who are out of work are having trouble affording a place to live. "As a council, we have to help them, and at the same time we have to coordinate between the government and the people we are helping," he said. Having no funding of its own, the council must rely upon federal money that is distributed by the provincial council. "Sometimes I say to myself, it's the responsibility of the Iraqi government and the American government. Painting walls and building road medians -- these create jobs opportunities for people."

While they are dealing with very local issues at the neighborhood council meetings, the impending withdrawal of American forces is on everyone's mind. As he leafed through a beautifully scripted document -- an application by a woman who wanted a street named after the son she had lost in a suicide bombing -- Khadam and his dozen or so council members slowly began introducing the issues at hand as he continued to speak with me. "I think [the withdrawal of US forces] is a positive point," he said. "All the Iraqi people consider the American presence as a domination with the checkpoints and closing the roads. In the last period, we got sectarian violence, but I think we can resolve these problems internally. I think we can manage because in the end, we are all Iraqis."

Regardless of what he thinks about the American presence and its similarity to occupation, Khamed said he preferred the American Army to the contracted security companies which man many of the roadside checkpoints in Baghdad. "I think the American army is better than these security companies," he said. "If you ask me about both of them -- the American army and the security companies -- I will choose the army."

As Khamed and the rest of the Ghazalia Neighborhood Council turned their full attention to the issues being discussed, the rise and fall of Arabic syllables became more pronounced. Hands and arms began gesticulating as their owners became more engaged, and I took my leave from the council table to join a group of soldiers sitting in the back of the room. At one point, three young men wearing soccer warmup suits marched into the room and began speaking very excitedly about something. I looked over at the interpreter, who informed me that something was amiss with the local soccer fields. The men were upset that the gate was locked, but that didn't seem to matter, because there was also an inch or two of raw sewage sitting on the field. The Council was also miffed by the complaints of neighbors who said the men were playing late into the night, keeping them up with the noise of fights and swearing. A soldier standing nearby explained that the cost of building one of these packed dirt soccer fields was pretty stiff, and had gotten more expensive over the past few years as contractors had gradually raised their prices for doing work. I'm not sure if anything was resolved, but there was a lot of heated debate about it. These guys were passionate about soccer.

In many ways, Iraqi local governments deal with the same sorts of things that local councils in the US do, but clearly, there are added challenges that are somewhat more gritty. Although the City of Goleta is scrambling to find funding to build the lush, green soccer fields we as Americans are used to, I doubt very much that they will have to clear away sewage or worry about IEDs once the project is complete. "They're stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Captain Tobin as we watched the proceedings. "They're politicians without any power because they don't have their own funding." Still, they have a pretty nice building in which to meet now, and that's a start.

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