Kids Say the Darndest Things; Update 6-18-06

She couldn’t have been more than four, an age universally at odds with patience, and she was clinging to her mother like all kids do whenever an idle minute, such as waiting in bureaucratic lines, brings time to a standstill. As is the tendency with most governments, lines are the status quo for any citizen al-Kirkukli at the Kirkuk Government Center.

I stopped in plain view and made a dramatic showing of leaning down and reaching into an ankle pocket and magically producing a Jolly Rancher lollypop. No response. Nothing. Not even a smile.

I approached her, wishing her peace in Arabic, using the common, if not formal way of greeting people in the Middle East. She replied – a phrase I didn’t understand – but it produced laughter amid the gathering crowd, including from my interpreter. Then her mother said something else in Arabic prompting the little girl reached for the candy. I gave it to her and smiled. This time she smiled back.

Walking away I asked my interpreter what the little girl had said and he told me…“You can’t speak Arabic.”

While I laughed then, and smile to myself now writing about the incident, I can’t help but feel that it is somewhat metaphorical. America is offering a big-ass lollypop called democracy that we are trying to give to Iraq, but somehow and perhaps inadvertently, we collectively stumble at hello.

Battle Rhythm

By now our soldiers are confident in their jobs – and we’ve found what we call our battle rhythm and fallen in step with the “Bastonge” brigade – for the famous WWII battle – the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne. This is no small task given our battle rhythm is something of a paradox: one minute we’re road-warriors well- armed and armored-up, dodging pot-holes and eyeing rooftops – while the next minute, like the flick of a switch, we become something of diplomats trying to make sense of political issues warped by time and abused by hatred.

No two days are ever the same. Personally, I prefer it that way. My sense of time is lost in addressing the next pressing matter. In many ways I’ve actually come to find I enjoy the work. If it weren’t for the strict theatre-wide prohibition on every vice imaginable, this place just might even be tolerable: I’ve met some very interesting people, held even more interesting conversations and have seen still more interesting sights.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team is made up primarily of three teams – governance, infrastructure and economics. The governance team – my team – works primarily with the provincial council and governor, mentoring, guiding and analyzing policy, politics and people. Everyone has a price and everyone has an agenda. Because it is considered rude to be direct in conversations in Iraqi culture, there is an inherent additional layer of complexity over and above the language barrier. Patience is indeed a virtue.

The infrastructure team is mostly engineering types working on reconstruction projects – water, electricity and sewerage. The economics team includes a small business center and a micro-finance loan center. The latter two teams invariably overlap with politics – projects and money are always political – and so by virtue of being on the governance team I participate in all three lanes.

A Day in the Life

• One ethnic group accuses another ethnic group of causing a water shortage by denying water to be released through a giant dam. After days of emotional and exhausting talks, a day trip with equal representation is planned to visit the dam. Engineers at the dam demonstrate – beyond a shadow of a doubt – how science and not politics is used to regulate the flow of water. The trip is a success and it is just one of the many small steps along a long, long road that needed to be taken if all sides are to trust each other enough to participate in a representative government. It is these types of issues that occupy the majority of my time. The number of issues are seemingly infinite – yet all are pivotal for progress.

• Sheikh Abdullah – a fictitious name for a real person – is a powerful tribal leader in lands north of Kirkuk. He worked extensively with special operations forces early in the war and he welcomes Americans as friends; but he’s not real keen on this democracy bit. He doesn’t approve of any of the leaders, doesn’t want to participate in the democratic process, and would really prefer it if the Americans remove the current leaders and emplace new ones. The Sheikh and I have had long conversations about history – how the Shiites lost their chance for political representation in the 1920s when they refused to engage those infidels we know lovingly as the British. And we’ve also talked about how the Sunnis have made the same mistake more recently by boycotting the elections and then finding themselves nearly locked out of the political process. Decidedly, Sheikh Abdullah agrees with me, shakes my hand and leaves happy. Then he comes back in the next week and we have the same conversation all over again. It’s like Groundhog Day.

• Contractors in one section of the province have their lives threatened. Is it corruption? Terrorism? A combination of the two? I have my own ideas about the cause and the solution – but the trick here is to get the Iraqis to deal with this effectively. If we keep doing it for them – they’ll never learn and we’ll never leave.