Sunday, April 11, 2010

Out in the Real Iraq

Last week I was able to go off base into a couple of local villages for the first time. Being an agricultural area, the people here live pretty simply. So what I saw is much different than what someone in the Baghdad area would see. Not surprisingly, walking through the villages reminded me of being in Africa. This area was not favored by Saddam Hussein, so they have mostly dirt roads, inconsistent electricity, and lack clean water. The houses are mostly mud and brick construction with mud or cinder block walls separating yards, although there are some places nicer than others. I saw a building that was bombed by Coalition Forces back in 2003 and looks like nothing has been done with it since.

People came out and saw us as we walked around. You will occasionally get people who will give you a dirty look, but most seem happy to see us. Kids come up to us to shake our hands and ask for money, candy, or toys. Unfortunately, we taught them to do that when we gave handouts as what we thought was a goodwill gesture. That is symbolic for what is happening at the local government level. The Iraqis want us to solve their problems by telling people what to do, throwing money at it, or doing another construction project. We are trying to get them to develop Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems by working within their own political and budgetary system. Those systems aren't working very well yet though, so I am sure it is very frustrating for the Iraqis. Building a democracy is tough work and will take many years. I hope Iraq continues down that path and I wish them well.

The first day I went out was to see a local government in action. We parked our MRAPs (the huge armored trucks) next to the town hall and walked in. Some of the guys stayed there to attend the city council meeting while I went with another group to walk around town. We were escorted by several soldiers who ensured no danger came our way, so you don't need to worry mom (I know it is pointless to say that). Our first stop was to see a local police officer. One of the guys with me works with the local police and judges, so he talked with the Iraqi police officer about various cases they are working. He promised to provide any info he received about a couple of guys we are looking for and we promised to look for evidence to help build the case on someone the Iraqis have in jail, pretty normal police work. The next stop was to see the judge. The courthouse is not like we think of courthouses. The judges have offices where they hear evidence and make their rulings. Being the important Americans, we were escorted past men and women waiting to make their case before the judge. My friend had never met this judge, so mainly it was a social call. The judge even had chai (hot tea) brought in for us. My friend told us later that it is unusual for a judge to do that. We left the courthouse and went back to the town hall. One of the soldiers went to a local store and brought back fresh flatbread and candy bars for us. The bread was delicious. I then went into the council room to watch the rest of the meeting. I didn't have anyone to translate the discussions for me, but it didn't look much different than a city council meeting you would see in the States. I don't know if that is a good thing or if I should feel sorry for the Iraqis. After the meeting, we returned to our MRAPs and went back to the base.

The next day a group of us accepted a mayor's invitation to have lunch at his house. It was an opportunity for us to have a local, home-cooked meal and having the Americans at his house gives him wasta (basically, power). We piled into the MRAPs again and drove out to his village. The MRAPs are too big for some of the local roads, so we parked and walked about half a mile. Again people were out and the kids came up to us and walked with us. Not surprisingly, the mayor had a very nice house. He had a gated driveway and a very green front lawn. The mayor came out to greet us and introduced his children to us. The whole time we were there, we only saw men and children (boys and girls). The women remained in a different part of the house, which is traditional. There were also other local politicians and businessmen there (again, all about the wasta). We went inside into a traditional room for visitors. Here are one of the other guys and I sitting in there.

We socialized for about an hour before tables were brought in. The Iraqis have an interesting way of eating. At one end of the tables, the men set up one group of food that included lamb, lamb in rice with fried noodles and peanuts, fish, soup, vegetables, and bread. There were three more groups like that. Here is the group that was by me:

About 15 of us stood around the tables and just started digging in. We didn't sit down. We didn't have plates. We didn't have utensils (other than a spoon for the soup). You just grabbed food either by using the bread or with your bare hands. Three Iraqis across from me posed for a picture with one of the guys taking a bite of a piece of lamb. After the picture was taken, the guy put the half-eaten piece of lamb into the dish with the rest of the meat. I made sure I didn't pick any food from that side of the plate. All of us ate until we had our fill. The soldiers who escorted us, if they were brave enough, came in and got to eat also. Some of the men then cleaned up after us. We sat back down to continue socializing. Naturally, chai was offered. After being there about 3 hours, we posed for some pictures, said our goodbyes, and walked back to the MRAPs with of course the kids escorting us. It was great to get off base and just be able to relax with some local Iraqis.

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