SAMARRA, Iraq -- I was riding along with U.S. Army soldiers in a trio of armored Humvees visiting polling stations in the often volatile city of Samarra when word came over the radio that a truck chock full of ballots in another convoy had been struck by an Improvised Explosive Device on the other side of the city.
The tension while awaiting further news was pure solemn dread as our vehicles retraced their way out of the cramped, trash strewn rutted dirt alleys back to base. The first thing the soldiers wanted to know on arrival was whether their comrades were okay. (They were; no fatalities or injuries.) The second was whether the ballots had pushed through. They had.
Captain Aaron Barreda of the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment grinned.
"It's going to take more than a few terrorist knuckleheads to derail this election," he enthused. "It's happening."
Whether it is because Samarrians are truly seeking to participate in the new Iraq or simply want to vote in Sunni members of parliament who will nudge coalition forces out of their country, democracy is indeed suddenly being passionately embraced by this once almost uniformly rejectionist city, which is located about 60 miles north of Baghdad. If the posters covering almost every available bit of concrete wall space along the streets of Samarra are any indication, Sunnis may remain skeptical about the new paradigm of Iraqi politics, but they are no longer willing to sit out en masse.
There is proof in the numbers beyond the rhetoric as well: During the election of the provisional government last January fewer than 1,000 of the mostly Sunni population of somewhere around 200,000 in Samarra voted. In the October referendum, however, that number skyrocketed to upwards of 72,000 voters. For tomorrow's election, Iraqi officials have ordered up 145,000 ballots.
"Those numbers tell the story of Samarra in my mind," Captain Barreda said. "It took a long time to get things turned around, and it's still tough going sometimes, but we're really excited to see the positive effect we believe this election is going to have on the situation here."
DRIVING OUT ALONG Highway One, a road that runs from Kuwait to the Syrian border, one can see the ruins of ancient Samarra in the distance, gutted but still imposing. It's a stark reminder of the towering history of this land, a past that has made its recent woes all the more tragic. Outside the main city, it could just as well be another century or millennium. Sheepherders guide their flocks while emaciated cows sway their snouts through the dust that hangs permanently in the air, coloring everything, everywhere. Farmers tend their crops. Occasionally a marshland rises out of the earth, nursed into being by the Tigris. The ban on civilian car travel in advance of the election only increases this odd warped-time feeling.
Somewhere beyond this area is an emergency response center, a liaison point for elements of the Iraqi forces, the provisional (soon to be permanent) Iraqi government, and coalition forces. As of now, Iraqi forces still need help everyday in the city, but there's little doubt they are getting better. American commanders here claim their mission in Samarra is becoming increasingly one of "assist and enable" rather than "occupy."
And in truth the turnaround in Samarra, in many ways, has been nothing short of astounding. While it is still an active theater of combat and a very dangerous place (the boom of mortars and the crackle of small arms fire are still all-too-frequent sounds here), six or eight months ago there were nevertheless nearly four times as many attacks on coalition troops daily as there are today. Along streets where the flag of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq flew only a year ago, Iraqi troops now patrol and the October assassination of tribal chief Sheik Hikmat Mumtaz al-Bazi has resulted in a backlash against insurgents. Samarrians, formerly sympathetic to resistance against the coalition, suddenly began providing tips on insurgent hideouts, weapons caches, and deadly IEDs.
"This situation is not as bad as in the past, and I believe with democracy things will only change for the best," Ahmed Abdalkreen, an Iraqi Police commander, told me via an interpreter, adding that while Iraqis have taken the lead in Samarra and are running election security, he still sees a role for coalition forces for at least the immediate future. "If the coalition leaves now, big problems will come. Everything we have worked for will be in danger. But if they stay and, God willing, the bad guys who are left are killed, it will be a great day ahead for the people of Iraq and Samarra."
It's a day important enough to some that they are risking everything to summon it into existence. One election worker told me of harrowing notes left at his home, describing him as a "traitor" and threatening his life for helping to facilitate the election.
"They've been dropping leaflets threatening his life, but he's still here doing his job," Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of the 3rd Battalion, noted with obvious respect after addressing some of the worker's concerns. "He hasn't been intimidated. This man is an example of a true patriot."
AT THE SAME TIME coalition forces are allowing Iraqis to take the lead in many (but, to be clear, nowhere near all) of the battles in Samarra, the U.S. Army is opening another front on the tough fight for the future of Samarra with a dizzying slate of civil engineering projects designed to win hearts and minds. While the battle against insurgent forces rages, other soldiers are busily building and repairing roads, water treatment facilities, and electric grids throughout the city. They're modernizing the hydroelectric dam that provides the city with its sometimes spotty power in hopes of increasing the quality of life. They're building an incinerator to help dispose of the trash piled up in many neighborhoods. New water lines are going up. They're fixing up schools, erecting a college, and working hard to re-establish a court.
Many adults in Samarra, however, seem incredulous and suspicious yet. But children surrounded the soldiers whenever we left the Humvee, giving wide smiles and enthusiastic thumbs up signs, and even patting some soldiers on the back or hugging them. In a strange way, it's disquieting and depressing to see children in a war zone with such a lack of fear. Hopefully one day soon they will find out what it is like to live in a society where part of joyfulness is not oblivion to guns and tanks and violence and danger.
Captain Barreda, for one, believes that day is coming soon.
"The news seems to focus on this bomb blowing up and killing four people or that bomb blowing up and killing ten people, and, yeah, that's a part of what's happening here that people back home should know," Captain Barreda said. "But they should also know that Iraqi men and women are standing up here and getting things done for themselves and their future. Those people's stories should be told, too."
"We have good security and, God willing, will have a safe election that will give Iraq a solid structure to develop into something great," an election official who asked his name be withheld for security reasons, added in a flourish of Arabic. "That is the future we are all working towards."
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