Local Iraqi leaders find job harrowing

Staff WriterSeptember 14, 2003 

NASIR AL WA SALAM, IRAQ -- The fragile new institution of democracy in Iraq recently cost Abdul Razzak Dhahir al Dari his car. He knows that at some point, the price may be his life.

Abdul, whose car was blown up at 3 a.m. one night last week, is a member of the eight-man city council that oversees Nasir Al Wa Salam and the surrounding farm and industrial suburbs, which have a total population of 150,000. The city sits west of Baghdad in the violent Sunni Triangle, though a large pocket of Shiites in the town makes it both unusual and less troubled than some others in the area.

Bombs, ambushes, death threats and military occupation aside, the concerns of the council members are those of local politicians anywhere -- creating jobs, and delivering basic services.

On Saturday , the council had its first formal meeting with officers from the Fort Bragg-based 82nd Airborne Division, which is taking over security in the area. All shared the goal of reaching a point where they can focus on the dull details of successful government: water bills, garbage collection, traffic tickets and enough classrooms. And all shared the realization that such a day was not yet at hand.

All the council members have received death threats for working with the occupying Americans, sometimes with an added flourish, such as an offer to burn down their home, too, said Capt. James Dayhoff, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who has been the main liaison between the council and the U.S. military off and on for about five months. His replacement is Lt. Isaac Rademacher, 26, of the 1st Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who led the delegation from the 82nd on Saturday.

Several council members have special permits from occupation forces to carry guns, but they say they need more than that.

"Security not good here," Abdul said, in halting understatement. His city sits astride Highway 10, which U.S. troops have dubbed RPG Alley, after the rocket-propelled grenades often used in the ambushes there.

Looters run rampant, targeting the area's many factories, which make such products as cement, glue, tiles and steel. The single biggest need is money for the 100 private guards the town has hired to protect property. They have gone unpaid for weeks.

The council wished Dayhoff a warm farewell and greeted Rademacher with flowery phrases, but the meeting was more nuts and bolts than ceremony. Most of the Iraqis wore robes and head coverings; the soldiers were in uniforms that bore salt outlines of their body armor : It had been a hot convoy along Highway 10.

"We are a fresh city council, so we need to be able to give more work to the people, more projects," said Mayor Abbas Hussein Al Kenani, 39, a civil engineer. He turned to an Army translator to make a more elaborate appeal.

Asking for work

"A crowd of young people is coming to the city council asking for jobs, asking for help," he said, "and if more people in that category get work, that will improve security."

Particularly troubling, he said, is that rebuilding projects have gone to contractors from other cities, who have brought in their own workers.

Other problems include military bureaucracy and the endless shifting of Army units around the country.

Capt. Dayhoff agreed that it would help to end the frequent swapping of military units in the area. The changeover to the 82nd was the fourth since the council was elected this spring.

Focusing first on the need for money to pay the guards, Rademacher turned to the Army translator. "Tell him my first order of business is to see how the money gets to me, and then I'll have a better sense of how this will work," he said. "We went to Baghdad yesterday to get briefed, and we tried to get them to answer all our questions, but they said come back next week."

"I'll tell him to ask them to be patient," the translator said.

At the other end of the table, Abdul spoke up. "The council was elected telling the people that the coalition forces will do this, and the coalition will do that, and then one unit left, and another one," he said. "Now these promises all fall on you."

Rademacher nodded and said it would be a priority to try to get the money for the guards by the end of the month.

Abdul, 38, an engineer and businessman, said it was important to complete at least some work on 16 schools targeted for renovation, because school would start soon.

"If a school needs 100 percent renovation, it would be good if you could do even just 10 percent," he said. "Then they could pack the students in just a few rooms and do the rest."

The mayor also asked repeatedly for the soldiers to mount more patrols, traffic checkpoints and hunts for looters. He said the 3rd Infantry Division had done that briefly this summer, to noticeable effect. Several members said such patrols would not only cut down on looting and other problems, but they would intimidate those who had threatened the council.

Aid hard to get

Dayhoff told Rademacher of several other problems that prevent the town from getting what it needs. For one, other towns in the area were far more violent, and the occupation government was judging its requests by the bad behavior of its neighbors. Another was that Dayhoff was with a smaller unit, so he could approve projects only up to $10,000 without going through a complex approval process. Rademacher should be able to approve projects of up to $25,000.

"You're really going to do wonders here," he told Rademacher, handing over a list of more than $1 million in 25 larger projects that he had recently sent the central coalition administration for approval. "They're going to think you're a superhero."

The bigger projects include the school renovations, a water distribution plant, cars for the city and the police, a new telephone system and water towers to bring running water to the city's poorest inhabitants, who live in a sector near a garbage dump where many of them eke out a living by combing through the trash.

Some things are getting better, Mayor Abbas said. Electricity had been available only five or six hours a day. Now it's 12 to 14.

Then, in a gesture of hospitality acknowledging the military changeover, the council had three yard-wide platters brought in -- a working lunch of saffron rice, giant hunks of lamb, nuts, raisins and peas.

"We wish you the best for your city and your country and we know that one day this will be a great place," Dayhoff said.

Abbas smiled so hard that his eyes disappeared.

In several hours of meeting, it became obvious that Dayhoff had become emotionally attached to the town. "I'd really love to come back in three or four months and see how far things have come," he said.

The council had apparently started spontaneously this spring after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. The members were selected in a large, town-hall style meeting.

"When I first met with the council, I asked them what it was like to vote," Dayhoff said. "Three of the guys started crying. They said this was the first time that they had ever had the opportunity to choose, to be free. And unlike some other towns, they see the opportunity they have here. They're willing to work for it and do their share."

Saddam Hussein hadn't allowed local elected government. Now, dozens of such councils have been organized, encouraged by military civil affairs troops or the Durham-based Research Triangle Institute, which has a giant contract with the U.S. government to help foster local government in Iraq.

The councils function in various ways. This one, Dayhoff said, actually works as a unit, unlike some in other parts of the Sunni Triangle, where all the decisions may be made by one person.

But council members across the country have received death threats from Saddam supporters and others who oppose the occupation.

In an interview after the meeting, Abbas shrugged at a question about the death threats.

"Yes, there is some danger," he said. "But our people know that we are working for some projects for them, and also for their security."

Abdul, meanwhile, said that one thing would end the turmoil.

"All Iraqi," he said. "When the country is all Iraqi."

Staff writer Jay Price can be reached at 829-4526 or jprice@newsobserver.com.

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