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Iraq Democracy: Can Iraqis Govern Themselves?

  • Adam Allington

In the aftermath of its March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military has tried to bring peace and stability to the country by promoting a system of democratic governance and civic responsibility. But for many Iraqis, this system seems at odds with the realities of their history and daily lives, and they've been resisting the change. Some U.S. military units, such as the U.S. Army's Psychological Operations (PsyOp) companies, are working to overcome that resistance — but not with the point of a rifle. They're taking more active roles in supporting Iraqi government officials, such as mayors or city council members, as they try to gain the confidence of Iraqi citizens. Adam Allington looks at the challenge of promoting democracy in Iraq.

On a crowded street in Ramadi, in central Anbar Province, shop owners sit in front of their stalls, children run up and down the street and a butcher skins and dresses a sheep. This scene would have been unthinkable less than a year ago.

But when Sergeant Clyde Rhoads of the 10th Psychological Operations Company exits his humvee, he doesn't have to walk far to get an earful about what people are thinking. His translator tells him, "[This man] says right now, many people, they have a hard situation, and… you are responsible for us, not the Iraqi government, because our government is very weak and we don't like them."

Rhoads responds, "We're trying to help you help rebuild a stronger Iraqi government, it's just a work in progress and as the situation improves, so will the government situation."

Part of the mission of U.S. Army PsyOp is to encourage Iraqis to turn to their government for solutions to problems. Specialist Tyson Demerest says in many situations, faith in one's elected leaders is as basic as whether they have reliable electricity. "I can tell you right now that a lot of them will openly admit that the way they view their government, and especially their mayor, is whether or not they're getting power at the moment. It's things like that. They don't care that their leadership might be corrupt or even criminal; they mostly believe 'Hey, they're supplying me with my essential services and my life is better because of it.'"

Issues such as power outages, unemployment, and rising gas and fuel oil prices only compound an already difficult situation.

"Peter" — a pseudonym — is an interpreter for the U.S. Army. He says many Iraqis don't look at the big picture. They only see small things taken away from them — such as recent food ration cutbacks. "Iraqi people [are angry] because they say, 'How we don't have money when the oil prices just lift up, and we've got a lot of money?'" He says the government doesn't explain its actions very well.

Army Major Jerry Wilson observes, "The Arab perspective is, ''What have you done for me? What have you done for my city? What have you done for my little town? What have you done for my province? What have you done for me?'" The executive officer with 10th Psychological Operations Battalion, based in Baghdad, says many Iraqis have unrealistic expectations of their fledgling government. "If they don't get resolved right away, you start running into a lot of ''Well, they're just not doing anything,' whether they are or not."

Wilson points to things that are working. "They have a parliament where they sit and look at bills, they're looking at the oil revenue bill, they're looking like a government would look at things, [but] everyone is still living in a time period here where Saddam ran it all. There were sheiks and governors that were out there that handled everything, and everyone was on the receiving end: 'I get my food, I get my supplements, I get my rations, I get my this, and by the way, I have a job guarding the street out here, and I get paid.' " He says the country is still trying to get over that dependency.

By American standards, Iraq's last general election in 2005 was considerably flawed: political parties appropriated religious symbols and many electoral lists were not made public until just before voting. Many Iraqis say the government won't last if the Americans leave. The next general elections in Iraq are not scheduled to take place until late in 2009.