SAMARRA, Iraq — If one needs proof of the dire circumstances many Iraqis have been living under as the insurgency rages on or of the determination of a few brave men to restore order and prosperity to a ravaged land, a visit to the green zone in Samarra should suffice. While the buildings housing the governmental, police and security services stand relatively unscathed, many others on the same block are shuttered or blown out from the campaign of violence that has only begun to relent during the last six months. Rubble is endemic, as are beautifully carved and painted decorative walls marred by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades: human ingenuity and imagination juxtaposed with savage primitivism and violence.
Small packs of cats move in and out of abandoned buildings, scrounging for food, while dogs lay comatose in the sun, covered in flies. I put my hand out to one white and brown dog that resembled any beloved mutt in America. He immediately cowered, tail between his legs, having never known human kindness in a land where there is not even enough compassion to go around to innocent human beings, never mind the so-called lesser creatures.
On Election Day Mahmoud Ahmed, the mayor of Samarra, had Iraqi and American officers monitoring the voting from the Joint Command Center (JCC) to his office for lunch, and I was invited to tag along. Several plates of beef, chicken, vegetables, and sauces were laid out from which we could build our own wraps with large circles of bread young men plied us with. The Iraqis ate with a hearty hands-deep-in-every-plate voraciousness I had never witnessed even in the backwoods trailer park barbecues of my youth. In between bites the security situation and plans for transporting the ballots were discussed one final time. The room was brimming with a confidence one does not expect to find in Iraq, but that has slowly taken hold after the success of the October referendum and the subsequent tapering off of violence.
As the meal ended and we headed out to the election monitoring station, the mayor — about as good a man as you’ll ever meet charged with about as difficult a task as you’re likely to find — leaned over to me and said, “I think today will be a good day, the beginning of the beginning. Security is tight and people are looking forward to voting.” Then the lights in the office flickered out and one couldn’t help but hope he was right.
IRAQIS, BY NATURE, ARE NOT EARLY RISERS. There are very few things that will draw them out of their homes early in the morning, especially during the one or two relatively chilly months of the year such as this one. Yet when I arrived at one of the children’s schools serving as a polling station in downtown Samarra just after 7:00 a.m., a huge crowd had already gathered at the checkpoint to vote.
Inside the pavilion one could see lines snaking into several rooms serving as voting booths. Election workers who have spent weeks preparing for this event under unambiguous threats of violence against themselves and their families exuded a mixture of excitement and raw nerves, knowing full well that until those ballots left the building 12 hours or so later they were a target for anyone who desired to derail the election. Voters weren’t interested in talking to me, an infidel, and Iraqi and coalition representatives alike acknowledged that Sunnis here were voting mostly in hopes of getting the Americans out of Samarra — which just happens to be the coalition’s goal as well, so long as it doesn’t become a violent terrorist haven.
“Tomorrow we will begin to build a new Iraq for everyone, not just one group,” the polling station manager, dressed to the nines in a suave gray suit, told me. When I followed up with a query about whether the one group he was referring to was the newly empowered Shiite majority or the newly disempowered Sunni minority, he demurred.
It may seem like nitpicking, but in this Sunni town the answer to that question could not be more pertinent. The insurgency in Iraq is not a single entity. There is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, various other Islamic militant groups, and then the Sunni rejectionists. These groups are separate, even if their tactics overlap sometimes. Islamic terrorists can never be brought to the table, but if enough Sunnis see a future in the democratic process support for much of the insurgency will wane.
Here’s the problem: Under a constitutional republic, Sunnis can hope for equal rights, but they can never again expect to have complete control over Iraq. If Alexander Hamilton feared the tyranny of the majority, then surely Sunnis are allowed to as well, but the question must nevertheless be asked: Will proportional representation be enough? One would like to believe there is a wellspring in humanity that urges us toward equality, yet time and again we have seen throughout history the intoxicating power of power; the desire to lord over fellow man made manifest.
What the future holds, no one can know. Success, however, seemed tantalizingly close in Samarra on Thursday. By the end of the day, nearly 110,000 Samarrians had voted. By comparison, that was somewhere around 40,000 more than the 72,000 that voted two months ago in the constitutional referendum. In Iraq’s first election last January fewer than 1,000 voted. In a year, what many said was impossible has come to pass. Sunnis have come around to the political process. Now, how to get them to stay?
THROUGHOUT THE DAY AT THE JCC, numbers came in from polling stations, maps and Internet chat rooms were consulted to keep abreast of what was happening in other towns in the area, and security forces prepared for a joint response to any attack that might spring up. Things hummed along quite nicely, with all the key players from the city of Samarra interacting easily with contingents from both the coalition forces and Iraqi Security Forces.
“What changes in the short term for Samarra, I don’t know,” American Army Major Phil Graham said. “But looking at what’s happening in this room, I’d say the long-term prognosis for Samarra is very good.”
“This is a thing of beauty,” Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of the 3rd Battalion, agreed. “This is the future. Everyone here is working to make their country a better place. When you consider how few elections have taken place in Iraq, it’s truly remarkable.”
At one point a frantic call came in over the Iraqi police radio, and a bit of the joy was sucked out of the room. Had a car bomb snuck through the defenses? Had a well-hidden IED been detonated at a polling station? The bustling at the JCC slowed. A translator did his work: Two polling stations had run out of ballots. The room breathed a collective sigh of relief.
STILL, ELECTION DAY WAS NOT completely quiet. Intermittent explosions and gunfire could be heard throughout the day. A mortar was fired at one polling station, but it landed far from its target. A rocket whizzed overhead, landing in a nearby cemetery with a huge boom. That was enough to set my knees knocking for the next hour, but the soldiers I was with simply registered what had happened and went to work with an efficiency equally humbling and frightening. You do not want to be fighting on the other side of these men and women. Within two minutes they had a lock on the rocket’s firing position. Moments later American artillery a few miles away was thundering and a truckload of Iraqi soldiers were en route to engage.
For many of these American soldiers, the successful election in Iraq last week was one more step on the long road home.
“Unfortunately, every generation has its own fight, its own war,” Major Darrell Green — a remarkably brave soldier with an impressive handle not only on the local situation, but the history of the region and beyond as well — said. “I’m here to make damn sure it gets done right in Iraq. I don’t want my son to have to go finish my fight.”