Thursday, January 27, 2005

Twinkling of Democracy

Thursday in Baquba: Three days before Elections

Colonel Petard in discussions with an Iraqi leader at Thursday's Peace Day meeting in Downtown Baquba.

Baquba, Iraq

This morning began an important day for the Iraqis in Diyala Province. Colonel Petard, the commander of US Forces in this region, organized a meeting of about sixty important local leaders in downtown Baquba. It was billed as a "Peace Day." But any American with a passing interest in civic life would instantly recognize Peace Day as a town meeting. Democracy was in the house--sporadic eruptions of contention mired in mostly mundane considerations of traffic patterns, commerce and the slow pace of public works.

Although known as a hotbed of insurgency, Baquba remains relatively quiet days before the elections. CNN and some other major networks just rolled into town, putting a journalistic presence here. Crews from various nations attended the meeting.

While waiting for the meeting to begin, I talked with delegates and listened to their words with great interest. I asked Sheik Taha from Khalis if he would vote Sunday. Sheik Taha answered firmly, "Of course...elections represent cultural development for people. Elections are beautiful, nice, good things in this time, today."

"Will you ask your people to vote?"
"Yes, my people will vote. Safety is hope."

I asked Sheik Taha, "Would you like to say something directly to the American people?"

He thought for a moment then answered, "No specific message to Americans, but to people around the world, that we Iraqi people want good relations with all people--different languages and conventions all over the world, and bilateral interests to produce good achievements to humanity."

I knew what he was trying to say. And I thought he was both serious and sincere.

But another man from Khalis told me that while he wants to vote, he does not want to die, and he was more pessimistic about the elections, saying less than 50% of the Iraqis would vote. When I told him that if 50% of Americans voted in an election, it would be shocking, he didn't seem to believe me. The man also was not convinced that elections would produce better conditions.

"Why?" he asked, "When CIA is most powerful intelligence business in the world can they not make electricity here? America went to sky, to moon, they have unnatural powers, but they are not making electricity in Iraq. Why?"

If it were not so clear that his question was rhetorical, I might have answered that the electricity seems to work better in Iraq than in most countries I visit. Promises to install more reliable electricity have not been made good, but then, the insurgents have been sabotaging the grid. The man continued, "I wants withdrawal of Coalition. Iraq is civilization for 5,000 years. We invent writing and the wheel and civilization. We have no sovereignty today. Why?"

Soon, we finished the foyer-talk and the leaders were gathering in a large hall, preparing to begin Peace Day talks when, BOOM! the building shook. Something fell from a wall, and there was the sound of glass smashing. I heard a .50 caliber machine gun begin firing, along with M-16 rifle fire, and possibly some AK fire. I dashed outside to cover to see who was shooting at who, but all the fire seemed to be coming from our guys.

"I think it was a mortar," someone said.

"Mortar my ass! That was a VBIED!" someone yelled.

I asked an Iraqi policeman to unlock the steel door, and I walked out to the road. A suicide bomber had apparently tried to disrupt the Peace Day. His vehicle was totally gone, and another man was lying on the road without head or appendages. Three Iraqi soldiers were wounded. Within some minutes, an American Military Police officer was sorting through the rubble and found the piece of the car he was looking for: a plate with the Vehicle Identification Number. The soldier radioed the information, and literally only a few minutes later they knew that the car bomb had been delivered by a rental car from Baghdad.

I could imagine US forces and Iraqi police launching out the gates to that rental agency just a few minutes later.

While I was photographing the wreckage, more .50 caliber machine-gun fire erupted down the road as some American troops, who were setting up a nearby election site, came under attack. They shot back at the attackers, who fled, and then continued with their work.

Certainly the best thing that insurgents can do to boost morale in the 1st Infantry Division is to shoot at the soldiers. When these Americans get attacked, they are happy and want to stay in Iraq. Don't shoot at them, and they get grouchy and want to go home. The troops with the highest morale in Baquba seem to be the ones who take the most punishment.

The fighting ended quickly, literally within minutes, and while the Iraqi police cleaned the street, the Peace Day leaders began their meeting with Colonel Petard, as if nothing important had happened. A distraction for a moment, and then on to the important business of the day: airing gripes, complaining about this or that, telling the American commanders that they are not keeping their promises to fix the electricity. There was the twinkling of democracy.

At one point, an Iraqi leader leaned over to me and said, "Democracy will be a bad thing. One party will replace another party and this will change government." He didn't seem to get it. Public debate is the bedrock on which freedom is based. To have a voice, to have the stature to be heard, to be free to argue with those in charge, and to fire them by voting when needed--isn't that what it's all about?

Colonel Petard broke from the meeting to do a live interview with CNN. When he came back to the meetings there were handshakes and hearty embraces. There had been a meeting of the minds, the open exchange of opinions, and joint planning. There may have been a car bomb in the street that distracted attention momentarily, but the meeting was a success.

I hoped the media would be all over the story of the democracy in that room. But it was not. And they got it wrong. The only coverage I could find was about the car bomb, with one report erroneously saying it had ruined the Peace Day meeting. Not even close.