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From a Trickle to a Flood


by Jocelyn Stayner 

Keith Mines, a BYU alumnus (1982) with over twelve years of experience in the Foreign Service, volunteered from August 2003 to February 2004 as the provincial governance coordinator in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. Steve Bitner, also a BYU alumnus in international politics with a minor in Arabic (2001), worked with Mines in the Al Anbar Province as political advisor from December 2003 to February 2004.

Replacing Traditional Power Systems

The war in Iraq is being played out in two disparate images: one of insurgents who are bombing and kidnapping, and the other—less covered by the media—that of political and economic progress. In an unusual and coincidental partnership, two BYU alumni spent two months trying to form a new provincial council in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, currently one of the most violent and fractured provinces in the country. Their experience offers a rare firsthand glimpse at the challenges, and the promise, that lie in Iraq’s future.

“While military operations in Iraq continue to steal most of the headlines, experts generally agree that the fight for Iraq’s future will not be determined on the battlefield, but rather in the political process that eventually emerges there,” said Keith Mines, governance coordinator. “In Al Anbar Province, this complex process involved a struggle between the old tribal structure and more modern technocratic methods of governing, between authoritarianism and democracy, and between tradition and modernity.”

Bridging the chasm between the old and the new required much external and internal support, coming from U.S. forces and Iraqis alike. The chief duties of Governorate Team members including Mines and Steve Bitner, as political advisor, focused on the promotion of U.S.–Iraqi relations and on fostering stability and democracy specifically in the Sunni Triangle Province of Al Anbar.

“Anbar,” said Bitner “is a 98 percent Sunni province—the location of the restive cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Khaldiyah. These are the so-called losers of the new Iraq—those people who were previously favored by Saddam and are now afraid that they are going to lose all their prestige and power when the country shifts to democracy.” Nervousness over this political change created conflict not so much against the idea of democracy but toward the changes in traditional power systems. Fallujah, a major city in Al Anbar Province, became a center of insurgent warfare in April as residents tired of the occupation by foreigners.

Keith Mines added that though Anbar has “a disproportionate share of the losers in the new Iraq, it is also home to one of the many resistance movements to Saddam’s rule in the 1990s, with a complex tribal structure, a strong business community, and an educated populace.”

Bitner explained that “despite their reputation as being anti-coalition and pro-Saddam, the vast majority of Iraqis in Anbar were relieved to be rid of Saddam and were looking forward to a better future. But to be sure, there was a great deal of anxiety that the country would split and fracture or that the Shiite majority would suppress the Sunnis.”

Describing the current political involvement in Iraq, Bitner explained, “Iraq is composed of eighteen governorates, or provinces. Each province has a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Governorate Team (GT) that works with the local government officials and community leaders to develop the local political scene and civic society. This civic and political development is done by forming political processes to choose government officials, assisting civic leaders in developing their organizations, mentoring local government officials and civic leaders, and identifying and supervising rebuilding and reconstruction projects, among other things.” Bitner continued, “Each GT is generally comprised of a governance coordinator, a deputy coordinator, a political advisor, a public affairs officer, and an administrative officer.”

Efforts by both Coalition and Iraqi forces brought impressive results. “In the beginning, there was a near total lack of partners and facilitators on the Iraqi side. Civic society and political parties were simply moribund,” Mines lamented. “But the process itself of involving various groups to explain and understand the concepts of democracy served to animate civic society, and soon there were a number of very promising leaders and organizations.”

Selection vs Election

One of the greatest roadblocks on the political side of the Iraqi reconstruction is the conflict between past ways of ruling government and the new democratic processes. “The 15 November agreement called for the provincial councils to play a more central role in the political process,” said Mines. “I was given the opportunity as the provincial governance coordinator to oversee the formation of a new council. My key partner, Steve, on loan from the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, was the coalition political advisor. The process of choosing a council remained a challenge, however, since we were stuck somewhere between selection and election, the first lacking legitimacy, and the latter being too complex to manage,” he explained.

Keith Mines supervises the election of a representative from the local business community to the Provincial Council of Al Anbar.

To promote a stable environment in which democracy can flourish, Mines, Bitner, and the rest of their team assisted the Iraqi caucuses. Mines explained, “The caucus mechanism, in which select groups of Iraqis would convene to elect their leaders, was intended as a compromise approach that would, by virtue of size and openness, have some legitimacy without overwhelming the Iraqi–Coalition administrative capacity to manage it.”

Caucuses were designed around existing groups, but that did not alleviate the potential for tensions to arise. “In mid-December we developed a template for the new council, which would divide the forty seats along political, regional, tribal, and functional lines,” Mines said. “While our arbitrary division of seats looked straightforward and fair on paper, it quickly became apparent that defending it would be a major challenge. In Iraq’s political culture, the notion of representation was still light-years away—you are either on the council or you are not. Status also weighed heavily, and dozens of individuals considered that they should have been on the council simply by virtue of tradition or tribal position.

“By mid-January the caucus process was ready to roll. In some areas, the current town leadership tried to control attendance at the caucuses, while others were well managed and open. But in all cases, observers reported both a clear hunger by Iraqis to be directly involved in their political future and an Iraqi fascination with the process of casting a ballot,” he reported.

Negotiating the Democratic Way

A simple ballot system. These voters were from the lawyer’s caucus in Al Anbar.

Designing the ballots proved to be a straightforward process. “Our Iraqi team came up with a simple template in which the 200 or so individuals in each of the occupational caucuses—engineers, educators, doctors, lawyers, etc.—were briefed on the rules of the game, and candidates were allowed to give brief speeches,” said Mines. “Then each individual was given a blank ballot on which to write his choice after verifying his credentials with the judge. Ballots were then counted by the judge and tallied on a blackboard by a small committee in an open forum viewed by all caucus attendees.”

Reflecting on the caucuses, Bitner said, “In total, more than twenty-five meetings were held either to elect a representative or to prepare the electorate for an upcoming vote. Some of the meetings were very peaceful and subdued. Many, though, were marked by loud debates and walkouts. Nearly every meeting that we held was covered by the local news media and broadcast to the people of Anbar. This open, argumentative, democratic process created a snowball effect where each subsequent meeting was attended by more individuals.”

A large group of community business leaders listen to candidates declare their platforms.

Yet the depth of integrated democratic ideology varied with each caucus. “Several of the caucuses were almost too simple. For the Ramadi religious seat, we had thirty or more Imams [Muslim clerics] show up and inform us that they did not need to vote, since they all agreed on the moderate Khaled Sulayman as their choice. A quick show of hands confirmed this decision and another quick voice selection yielded his deputy,” said Mines.

Other caucuses were much more complicated. “The educators’ and the health professionals’ elections did not go smoothly,” reported Bitner. “The first election was very well attended by about 250 local primary school, secondary school, technical school, and university educators. Unfortunately, the groups do not get along. It’s sufficient to say that tempers were high with various groups and individuals accusing each other and the CPA of circumventing democracy.

“At one point, a loud individual railed against the injustice of having only one seat for educators on the new Provincial Council instead of three. Soon nearly half of the congregation started for the single exit in the back of the room. Acting fast, we yelled for the police officer to ‘Seal the doors!’ so the discussion could continue. The audience became captive. Twenty tense minutes of explanation, discussion, and negotiation later and the would-be participants agreed to continue their involvement in the election. It was an exhausting meeting,” he disclosed.

One vote per person.

Thinking back to the educators’ caucus, Bitner admitted, “In retrospect, I think the experience with the educators was actually very positive. It demonstrated to me that the Iraqis are dedicated to having a true democratic process, so much so, that they are willing to boycott the process if it’s not perceived as genuine. Fortunately, we were able to convince them that the current process was as genuine as possible.”

Both Mines and Bitner hailed the business caucus as successful, yet complex. “There was such intense interest in the business caucus that we were forced to hold three successive votes after our first attempt was overwhelmed,” commented Mines.

Bitner added, “We knew that we would potentially have about one thousand people come out to participate in this caucus. The room that we had been using for these events holds about three hundred, so the numbers created some logistical problems which we solved by holding three meetings in quick succession so that everyone who wanted to would be able to vote.” He also pointed out that “it was a challenge to ensure that people only voted once and that the room didn’t become so full as to pose a lethal fire hazard, but we pulled it off.”

Triumphant supporters of the winning candidate carry him out of the room on their shoulders while they sing and dance.

The circumstances sound like something Hollywood would create for a movie set. “We were in this fairly large hall. Due to power outages that frequently plague Ramadi, there were no internal lights. Because of the crowds crushing to get inside to witness the final tally, all the doors to the outside were shut and locked. The only light came from a few windows in the back of the room and the small LED flashlights that our team was carrying,” said Bitner. “Over the past three hours the room had been full of hundreds of smoking individuals, so a haze had settled that made everything murky.

“As the final tally was announced, the jubilant supporters of the winning candidate broke out in clapping and chanting. Somebody ripped open the doors that led directly outside. Sunlight streamed into the room, and a large crowd picked up the candidate and carried him out of the room on their shoulders, the crowd chanting and dancing the whole way. Democracy at its finest,” he affirmed.

No Longer Silenced

Men weren’t the only ones involved in the political process. In special caucus sessions, women voiced their opinions and cast their votes. As Bitner reported, “One of our greatest successes was the women’s caucus. It was phenomenal. We had 248 women of Ramadi vote for their representative to the provincial council. Originally, the women were supposed to meet on 12 January in order to elect their representative, but when we arrived for that meeting there were a total of about twenty women. Rather than go ahead with that small number, we decided to postpone the election until 22 January in hopes that more women would participate and the results would enjoy greater legitimacy.”

Mines explained, “Our first attempt to hold a women’s caucus failed when the majority of the women turned away at the sight of television cameras. A second meeting was scheduled with the promise that no cameras would be present.”

Several women participate in the election for a representative to the Provincial Council of Anbar.

The turnout for the second attempt was gratifying. “We had about 280 women attend the second caucus. The women who nominated themselves as candidates for the seat were amazing. They were more articulate and passionate in presenting their visions for the future of Iraq and the place of women  in that future than any other candidates in any other election had been—all of whom were male,” said Bitner. “At the end of the meeting, the clear winner was the Islamic candidate. The progressive candidate, a lawyer who had lost three brothers to Saddam’s regime, gave a concession speech where she stated that it wasn’t important who had come in first or second, the real winners of the day’s election were the women of Iraq.

“Unfortunately, a great many of women present at the meeting stated that they would leave and boycott the vote if any television cameras were present. As a result, this meeting wasn’t covered by the local and international press as has been the case with all of our other elections. It’s too bad. I think that all Iraqis would have benefited by seeing that kind of event,” Bitner attested.

Personal Safety and Security

The war that created the need for political reconstruction must also now deal with the extremist anti-coalition and anti-American Iraqis remain, posing a threat to the safety of coalition participants. Precautions such as round-the-clock bodyguards and bullet-proof vests were necessary to protect Mines and Bitner against violent assaults. “In the Anbar Province, the U.S. military provided site security at both our place of work in downtown Ramadi as well as at the military base where we slept and worked at night. They also often provided convoy security as we made movement around the town and province,” said Bitner. “In Ramadi, I wore a flack-jacket style vest and carried a firearm while traveling to and from locations. In addition, during our rounds of election meetings, I wore a low profile bullet-proof vest under my shirt.”

A local woman exercises her right to vote.

Mines concurred that “with regards to the vests and weapons, every time we left the base we put on bulletproof vests and carried weapons while we traveled. We were under constant threat from ambushes and roadside bombs.” And conditions at that time were not as heated as they have become in recent weeks.

“Steve and I were never hit,” continued Mines, “but the day after the caucuses ended, my vehicle was destroyed in a roadside bomb with other persons in it. Luckily, it was an armored vehicle so no one was harmed. The team has been hit by at least one more IED (Improvised Explosive Device) since I left. We used our weapons several times to respond to ambushes but nothing more than that. We also generally traveled with military convoys, and they had the mission of protecting us, but we wanted to be able to pitch in if necessary. We never carried weapons when around Iraqis doing our day-to-day jobs.”

Despite the obvious dangers facing the coalition, participants were ready and willing to put fear aside in order for democracy to flourish. “As far as fearing for my safety,” Bitner conceded, “Shortly after arriving it became clear that every day that we operate in Iraq, we are at risk, but you learn to minimize the risk and it becomes tolerable. Most everyone with the coalition accepts that and is able to cope without letting fear consume them.”

An Elected Provincial Council

Steve Bitner prepares for the trip downtown.

Democracy comes in baby steps. It is a long and difficult process to go from a system based on military dictatorship and a strong emphasis on tribal and traditional leaders, with little say from the public as to who ruled or even how the country was run, to a system based on the democratic ideals emphasizing the citizens’ rights in forming and directing the government. But the initial move toward democracy did result in a representative council.

“Over a two-month period, over five thousand Iraqis, most of whom had never been involved in politics before and many of whom were previously hostile to the coalition, assembled in caucuses to select their representatives,” Mines said. “This process, though recognized by all as imperfect, was nonetheless a major breakthrough for civic society and the development of democracy in this restive province. It demonstrated an absolute desire on the part of the citizens of Al Anbar to be directly involved in selecting their leaders, an intuitive feel for the process of democracy, and a fascination with voting.”

Though a difficult journey still in the process of realization, the implementation of democracy was greatly aided by the caucuses. These meetings served to establish an elected provincial council as they aided in breaking down social barriers among the people in Iraq and between Iraq and the coalition members.

“By the end of the entire process we had overseen the creation of a provincial council that represented the people of Anbar to a degree never before seen in the province,” reflected Bitner. “Not every elected representative on the council could be considered a friend of the coalition, but their inclusion convinced many that the U.S. is committed to democracy in deed and not just in word. There was a palpable difference in the way that the citizens of Ramadi regarded coalition members when compared with attitudes displayed before the creation of the council.”

The new council held its first meeting on 8 February. “The council was recognized as an imperfect body that had been selected through an imperfect process, but it was also widely recognized as the first democratic body to represent the people of Al Anbar,” Mines concluded. “Significantly, we saw the hunger of Iraqi citizens for a voice in how their affairs were managed and an utter fascination with the process of voting. From a trickle to a flood, democracy had arrived in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.”

The Process Continues

Demonstrators were in opposition to the Provincial Council that had recently formed in Hillah, Babil Province.

After a short break, Bitner is again serving in Iraq, this time in Babil Pro-vince. “Babil Province has been a somewhat different story from the Province of Al Anbar,” he said. “This is a predominately Shiite province, whose citizens suffered a great deal under Saddam. Security continues to be foremost on everyone’s mind.

“Here, the four-member governorate team has a number of Polish paratroopers that have been detailed to provide our security as we work and travel through the province. The City Hall building that houses the governorate team’s office is guarded by Polish paratroopers and whatever contingent of Iraqi police assigned to the building for the day.”

Due to recent attacks, more precautions must be taken for safety. “Unlike Anbar, here in Babil Province, I do carry a sidearm with me during my daily work. While inconvenient and a possible detriment at times in building relations with local Iraqis, the possibility that a sidearm might be needed outweighs any negatives associated with carrying it,” said Bitner. “That said, the vast majority of Iraqis that we deal with are very receptive to what we are doing here in Hillah. They want a free and independent Iraq.”

Bitner will remain in Babil Province until June 2004, at which point he will return to his post as a consular/ economic officer at the embassy in Warsaw, Poland. Mines returned to his post as a political/military affairs officer at the embassy in Budapest, Hungary.