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When in Baghdad, Do as the Arabs Do

Women wait in line for humanitarian packets at the Iskan Neighborhood Council in Baghdad. (photo by John Goodman)

Cooking oil, rice, beans, soap, and other supplies essential for daily life. That's what is contained in the humanitarian aid packets doled out by neighborhood councils in Baghdad these days. Backpacks with "I love Iraq" patches sewn to them are stuffed with notebooks and pencils and given to Iraqi school children. Not too long ago, U.S. Army soldiers gave humanitarian supplies to those in need, but now they only supervise and help out with logistical support when it's needed. "We used to pass out these supplies ourselves. It was much more hands on - instant gratification. Now, we're trying to prop these guys up," said Staff Sergeant Justin Godfrey - a member of one of the Civil Affairs Teams operating under the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion - of the Neighborhood Councils' relief programs. Coalition money still pays for the fairly regular stream of boxes into Iraqi neighborhoods, aided by donations from school drives and charity organizations in the U.S. Many of the supplies used to come from the States, but mission planners have found buying products locally to be more effective, as it stimulates the economy that is being helped.

Godfrey is one of a dozen or so soldiers sent out on a regular basis to monitor transfer of the boxes of household goods from an Iraqi contractor to neighborhood councils in his team's area of operations. Usually, dropoffs occur during holidays and other special times per year to increase bang for the buck. This week, his team visited Ghazalia, Iskan, and Washash. Each of these neighborhoods possesses certain little nuances that make one unique from the next. It can be as simple as the way the market is laid out, or the manner in which people interact with each other - or even how many bullet holes there are in the sides of buildings. But the main differences are in how people choose to confront problems as a community. Compared to municipal issues in the States, the challenges faced by most Iraqis have much more dire consequences if their struggle to overcome them is met with failure. Unfortunately, overwhelming odds against success - whether by external pressure from an unsupportive national government or from a deep-rooted habit to shrug it off and cease trying - have made desolation the norm in a lot of places. While things are on the mend, major changes are coming that could upset the delicate balance that currently exists. One could surmise that maybe people don't really want to work very hard for something they'll lose. At least, that's the impression I get sometimes looking around Baghdad's semi-urban villages as I wonder why nobody is doing more to clean up and improve things.

However, even if the changes aren't always visible, people really are stepping up to the plate. One day, Civil Affairs soldiers met with the head of the Mansour area District Council about some upcoming projects. It's amazing that anybody serves on the District Council there considering its history. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Downey, Captain Shawn Tobin, and Sergeant First Class Fred Welch -- team leaders from Alpha Company, 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion -- spoke with a sad-eyed man seated before portraits of council members who had been murdered for their work and affiliations. One was gunned down only three weeks ago. The District council supersedes the neighborhood councils in authority, but doesn't have much more in the way of funding, having to rely on whatever the federal government allots. At present, it's a difficult job with a high risk factor involved, so it may do much to explain why people haven't staked more of a claim in their country's repair. They may be, and with good reason, afraid. Lieutenant Colonel Simon Gardiner, a civil affairs officer with Multi National Division - Baghdad, said that civil affairs work entails more than "putting an Iraqi face" on Coalition work. "We could spend a gazillion dollars in Baghdad, and if it's gone the day we leave, we might as well have spent nothing," he said. "[Iraqi leadership] has to start from the very planning, otherwise there's no ownership and [the project] won't be built right."

Another issue that has come up again and again over the last 100 years or so is the hundreds of years of Arab customs that dictate the manner in which people do things here. When the British Mandate of Mesopotamia -- predecessor to the modern state of Iraq -- was established in 1920, most people were nomadic Bedouin tribes living in rural areas. This mode of living actually continued well past the 20th Century's halfway mark, until the Baath Party embarked upon an aggressive program of modernization during the 1960s and 1970s. Those Brits who had tried to impose a very rigid, direct European system upon Arabs they were working with did not enjoy much success. Even though Iraq's cities appear fairly Western in many ways, there are still ways that things are done here indicative of that deep-seated Arab mindset that isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

T.E. Lawrence, who spent years on archaeological digs throughout the Middle East, got to know Arab customs perhaps better than anyone else, leading eventually to his assignment during World War One as a British Army intelligence officer in charge of coordinating a Hashemite rebellion against the Turks. In his 27 articles, he offered several suggestions which, while some are dated and Eurocentrically condescending, Coalition commanders are finally getting the hang of. That was in 1917. Today, it has become apparent that Iraqis don't like to be ordered about. From neighborhood councils to the top levels of government, a leader's personal image is key, and in most cases he (and now, in some very rare cases, she) will follow directions if it appears to his constituency that the idea and power originated with him. "Westerners tend to come blundering in here and think we have all the right answers," said Gardiner.

As the role of troops in Iraq has transitioned from a more aggressive combat stance to fit the civil-military operations model, they have adapted to meet the change -- sort of. Sergeant Daleena Scott, a soldier from the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion currently serving her second deployment, related her experience from her last deployment a couple of years ago. When her unit arrived, they were working with soldiers from the Tennessee National Guard 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which, like the reservists in her own unit, she classified as compassionate and professional -- essentially citizen soldiers. They were replaced midway through her tour by the 101st Airborne Division, whose high speed combat soldiers have a reputation for aggressive behavior that she didn't always see as a good fit for civil affairs work.

Putting Theory into Practice

On the streets of Ghazalia, I stood off to the side with Staff Sergeant Godfrey while an Iraqi contractor handed out boxes of goodies at the neighborhood council. A man who looked to be in his thirties approached us, asking in broken English how long Godfrey and his teammates had been there. The man, named Hussein Doahya, said that he had talked to some other soldiers who had passed out supplies last year, and pulled a 101st airborne combat patch out of his pocket. "You look different than the last soldiers," he said, pointing at Godfrey and smiling. "Your face, the way you talk; it's better."

Staff Sergeant Godfrey pointed to the Civil Affairs patch on his left shoulder, explaining that he was from a different unit. "They're infantry. This is our job," he said, waving a hand over the men unloading boxes of humanitarian supplies.

Hussein, a man with a soft, round face and a gentle smile, explained that as a civil engineer for the government, he had to work two jobs in order to avoid taking bribes. "I can't steal -- I don't do that like other people. I finish my work and come back to my shop," he said, pointing at a dusty, bare bones satellite TV shop in front of the Neighborhood Council Building. He also offered that he was a communist -- not something encountered too often in Iraq. "You can count [Iraqi communists] on your fingers because not too many people understand it."

As we spoke, a few shots rang out in the background. Nobody dove for cover or anything, but the soldiers looked around nervously and decided it would be best to wait inside the building just in case the Iraqi policemen standing around in the streets decided to return fire. Sergeant First Class Fred Welch said that he was worried about overspray from the shooting. Most policemen are armed with AK-47s, but many haven't received extensive weapons training and aren't known to be the best marksmen. "It could get ugly real quick," he said.

Later that day at the Washash neighborhood council, Lt. Col. Downey spoke with Abdal Husayn Mohammed, the council chair, who wanted more Coalition support for infrastructure improvements around the community. He also seemed a bit miffed as he explained that he wanted himself and his councilmen to be included in more ceremonies. With no budget of their own, their only power lies in rallying ability, which Lt. Col. Downey said has been greatly aided by their cooperation with Coalition-funded projects. A small explosion from a nearby street halted everyone's conversations for a minute, and prompted the US soldiers to end the impromptu meeting. As we filed back to the MRAPs waiting outside, a man wearing a dishdash smiled and said something in Arabic. Someone turned to one of the interpreters to get a quick translation. "He said Obama is good. God listens to him. He is human." We never did find out what the explosion was from, but if civil affairs doctrine is true, eradication of such activity begins in places like the neighborhood council building we had just left.

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