Friday, January 30, 2004

Mr. Mike

If you want some insight as to how the US is getting things done in Iraq, read this article from US News and World Report. It follows "Mr. Mike" Gfoeller as he makes daily contact with Iraqi tribal leaders. It also details the "Democracy 101" sessions the US is holding so that these tribal leaders can learn what is means to live in a democracy. In addition, the article features some fascinating quotes from Iraqi tribal leaders. Some excerpts:

Amid a grove of palm trees surrounded by farmlands, lunch is being served in the tribal guesthouse. Men clad mostly in traditional robes sit barefoot on carpets around a feast of lamb, rice, and grilled fish. The center of attention on this day isn't one of the gathered Shiite tribal chiefs or the tall, bearded cleric; it is a mustachioed American they politely call Mr. Mike.


In some ways, Mr. Mike calls to mind a soft-spoken, Midwestern version of Indiana Jones, with an olive fedora, a rumpled safari jacket, and a Buck knife (his "insurance policy") strapped to his waist. Here in the Shiite heartland, home to the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, Mike Gfoeller (GE-fel-ler), a 46-year-old veteran diplomat, administers a swath of southern and central Iraq. He is the civilian face of the U.S. military occupation, one of the relatively few Americans Iraqis encounter who isn't sporting body armor, wraparound sunglasses, and an M-16. Instead, he is armed with a diplomat's skills. Intimately familiar with Arab culture from past postings in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, he speaks the language, which he learned in college and on a Fulbright fellowship in Egypt.


The tribal chiefs talk of American "liberation" rather than "occupation," and they enthuse about their democratic future--even if they are a little fuzzy about the details. "We want an Iraqi democracy from Iraqi traditions, not from American ones," says Farkad al-Hussainy al-Quizwiny, a towering, thickly bearded sheik who heads a Shiite religious school in Hilla and works closely with Gfoeller. "But if an unwanted man reaches power, we should force him out." This provokes a sharp debate. "Even if a man reach power with 50 percent, we should back him," insists Abdul Aziz al-Yasiri, a politician who has come from Baghdad seeking the tribe's support. The local Iraqis agree, then shift to discussing, of all things, the upcoming U.S. election and how their actions might help support President Bush.


But whether drawn by curiosity or conviction, hundreds of tribal leaders, religious clerics, community leaders, and even women from the region pack into the marble-walled meeting rooms of the old Saddam Mosque in Hilla for a lecture on democracy. "Everyone is here to be acquainted with democracy," says Sheik Thahar Abdul Khadum Mokeef al-Jabouri, a local tribal chief who heads a union of farmers in Hilla. A local farmer, Ali Madlum al-Fatlawi, agrees: "Democracy is the only solution for the Shia."

The lecture is basically an abbreviated Democracy 101, presented by Larry Diamond, a professor from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "In a democracy, it is impossible for everyone to achieve everything they want," he cautions the crowd. "Democracy requires compromise." He also tries to argue that early elections could be counterproductive, but many in the crowd seem unconvinced, more swayed by the respected Sistani's call for a vote.


At the end of the lively question-and-answer session following the lecture, a female lawyer from Najaf shocks the male-dominated gathering by demanding to be heard. She explains that she was appointed to be a judge, but several clerics blocked her, insisting that Islam forbids women from sitting on the bench. Quizwiny quickly rises to challenge her: "Islamic law rejects that a woman can be appointed a judge." She retorts, "There is no difference between a man and a woman." Eventually, he backs down, slightly. "Iraqi law will depend on the Iraqi people, who will vote on a new constitution, which will say whether women are allowed to be judges." He adds, wryly, "This is democracy."

Afterward, Gfoeller is pleased with the discussion, even if he doesn't agree with everything Quizwiny says. "They will have to figure out what the role of women is," he says. "I'm not going to answer that question for Iraq." But some Iraqis in attendance are uneasy that Quizwiny's statements went unchallenged by the Americans. "The strange thing is that all the American officials I have met do not seem to be interested in transferring the American ideals to Iraq," says Hazim Safi, an adviser to the Human Rights Association in Babylon. "The Americans should have come with clear ideas and defended things like mixing boys and girls in school."


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