Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Untold Story of Iraq (Part 4): Iraqis in Control

NOTE: Having recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan I finally had a chance to read two great books Among the People: U.S. Marines in Iraq by Lieutenant Colonel David Benhoff (Read more about this book at here) and Michael Yon’s much anticipated book Moment of truth in Iraq: How a New "Greatest Generation" of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster Into Victory and Hope (Read more about this book at here). I highly recommend them!

The Sunni-dominated al Anbar Province largely abstained from participation in Iraq’s landmark 2005 elections. However, now that they are free of both the Baath Party’s and al Qaeda’s oppressive control and influence they have embraced the concept of democratic self-government, albeit with an Iraqi twist. Fallujah, like much of al-Anbar Province and Iraq as a whole, is structured around tribal leadership, which is one reason why Iraqis hesitated to embrace democracy. However, tribal leaders are now supportive of the democratic process because they are now included in it. Importantly, women, once excluded from government and the debate on important issues, are now participating in Iraqi government and society.
In a previous post, I reported that I attended I had the privilege to attend a Fallujah City council meeting. There I witnessed Fallujah’s leaders taking charge of their city’s governance and work to resolve important issues in the community. I also witnessed two Iraqi women attend the meeting, representatives of the Iraqi Women’s Engagement program. To me, this was a clear sign that women were not only participating in government, but also that the issues and concerns of women were being addressed. During the meeting, I witnessed Fallujah’s sheiks come together for a common good, and being integrated into a larger provincial governance. Their biggest challenge, was gaining the full support of Iraq’s central government. While Marines and other U.S. representative attended the meeting, we were only there when called upon to offer advice and offer U.S. support when needed. Nonetheless, it was very clear that, with U.S. help, Iraqis are building provincial and municipal governments that provide self-governance and self-reliance. Currently, Anbar’s political parties are now active in the political process in anticipation of the upcoming fall 2008 Provincial elections—demonstrating that Anbar is moving forward in the democratic process.
In addition to Anbar’s move to democracy and the promise of new economic prosperity, social changes are taking place that are beginning to transform Anbari society. Anbaris are no longer isolated or indoctrinated by state-owned media. New radio and television stations, along with new newspapers, magazines, and improved Internet access, are helping to not only educate and inform Anbaris, but include them in the discussion of issues and exchange of ideas. For the first time in history, local Anbari leaders are using the media to engage their people, to include call-in programs where locals can talk to their officials about important issues. A few days after I attended the city council meeting, local leaders, including Fallujah mayor, Saad Owad, and Colonel Faisal, Fallujah’s Police Chief, participated in a local call-in talk show where Iraqis asked questions about issue while also voicing their concerns. This is truly historic—unheard of in Iraq’s history and certainly not tolerated if al-Qaeda had succeeded in imposing it will on the city.
Meanwhile, a program called Iraqi Women’s Engagement is helping empower Iraqi women while improving their position in Iraqi society and government. The program is also working with other U.S. agencies to help Anbar’s Civil Society organizations provide for those Iraqis excluded from other programs—such as widows, the disabled, and the elderly. Amid the social changes and improved security, more parents are sending their children to school, and many older Iraqis are attending adult literacy programs, vocational, training, or attending one of al-Anbar University’s seventeen colleges across al Anbar, including a woman’s college.