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Election Daze

A Boston public school teacher turned US diplomat sets out on a three-week odyssey to jump-start elections in one of Iraq's most dangerous provinces and gets his own education in building a democracy.

By Anne Barnard
Globe Staff / April 18, 2004
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The morning mist rises from the Euphrates River to reveal the sand-colored ramparts of the palace complex Saddam Hussein built for himself on the edge of Ramadi, an Iraqi provincial capital. A gray-haired man with a worn briefcase walks through the gates in a beige trench coat and a Burberry scarf.

Hugh Geoghegan, a Boston public school teacher turned US diplomat, has just spent a restless night listening to insurgents' mortars thundering close to the palace, the headquarters of the 82d Airborne Division. For a decade, he represented the United States in Arab countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, most recently running a cultural center in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. But on this January morning, his mission is more formidable. Geoghegan (pronounced GAY-gan) is leaving on a 10-day trip to the western outposts of Anbar province - remote areas where even Hussein's control was tenuous - along with three consultants from a nonprofit contractor. Traveling in military convoys, they will visit six towns that have had almost no contact with the civilian branch of the US occupation. Their job is to jump-start democracy in some of Iraq's most dangerous places. And they are on a tight deadline.

By the end of January, the towns will have to choose representatives to a new provincial council, an early step in the US plan to hand off power to a sovereign Iraq by June 30. Equally important is a less tangible goal: getting Iraqis in the nation's 18 provinces to buy into new local and provincial councils as the start of a home-grown democracy, the light at the end of the tunnel of occupation. The councils are supposed to give Iraqis their first experience of self-rule and eventually help choose a national government. Failure could throw the new state's legitimacy - and the Americans' exit - into question.

Geoghegan has packed in near-darkness; sandbags block the window by his bunk to fend off shrapnel. He slips a green camouflage flak jacket over his navy-blue blazer. Against the front seat of his SUV, he props his wood-handled Kalashnikov rifle. He slides behind the wheel, joins a convoy of three Humvees, and heads west to start what he knows will be an imperfect experiment.

Geoghegan is a long way from his beginnings, when he moved around the United States following his father's engineering job with Union Carbide. A precocious classical-guitar player as a young man, Geoghegan graduated from Harvard's extension school in 1978 and received a master's degree in law and diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He planned to practice international law but detoured into working with special-needs children in the Boston public schools - it appealed to his sense of noblesse oblige. That persisted after he joined the State Department in the early 1990s. Last fall, he set aside the debate in his agency over the Iraq policies of President George W. Bush and took his new assignment "to help the Iraqi people."

Geoghegan, 58, calls New England home but lives virtually full time overseas. He's at home in the part of the world he first fell in love with as a child, when he would stare at an oil landscape above his grandmother's mantel that showed a desert sunset and a mysterious city in the distance. Now he hopes to play a small but important part in the region's future.

For the occupation authorities in Iraq and for the Bush administration, it is critical to create credible local power structures in places like Anbar. A bloody insurgency thrives around the province's main cities, Falluja and Ramadi, and peace will require coaxing Sunni Muslims who benefited under Hussein's regime to support the new order. To succeed in Iraq, the United States must succeed in Anbar. But a series of trips with Geoghegan and his colleagues on and off over three weeks in January, and the mixed results they achieved, illustrates the perils of democracy at gunpoint and offers a dose of caution for the United States as it seeks to build a stable Iraqi state.

The selection of Anbar's provincial council will eventually chalk up one clear success: It unleashes vibrant - sometimes angry - political debate unheard of under Saddam Hussein. American officials estimate that 5,000 Anbar residents took part in the beginnings of self-rule, despite ongoing attacks on anyone cooperating with the occupation. Yet the mission could still fail. The delicate experiment of democracy-building in Iraq is overshadowed by political considerations, from Shiite Muslim leaders' demands for quicker elections to the unspoken imperative among GOP leaders to transfer responsibilities to an Iraqi government well before President Bush faces reelection in November. Even as those pressures force US local-governance teams to work faster, security fears severely curtail their interaction with ordinary Iraqis - too often, the messengers of democracy roll into town in convoys bristling with arms.

I am traveling in Ramadi and western Anbar with Geoghegan, the occupation authority's public-affairs officer for the province, and several others as they work to set up councils. When US troops arrived in Anbar last year, they appointed town councils and a provincial council, choosing whoever seemed influential and willing to cooperate. In January, the mission is to replace or expand those councils with more input from a broader swath of local society. But many of the Americans involved in carrying out the plan - military and civilian officials and contractors - express concern that inadequate time, planning, security, and staffing will yield councils without broad-based support or problem-solving clout.

And while Iraqis are thrilled at the chance to choose their leaders, many are disappointed to find that they are taking part in something less than full democracy - not direct elections but small caucuses supervised by US officials. Soon after the Anbar council finally meets for the first time in mid-February, US officials abandon plans to choose a national assembly through a similar caucus system; Iraqis had widely rejected it as too influenced by US authorities. That now leaves major questions about how to form the national government, just 10 weeks before it is due to take over. It strips away one of the main proposed roles of the provincial councils, which were to have played a major part in the national caucuses. And it leaves Iraqis wondering whether their first experiment with quasi-democracy - these new local power structures set up by foreigners - will actually give them a voice in the affairs of their towns and their nation.

"After all the billions of dollars that have been spent, all the lives that have been lost, it comes down to this," Geoghegan tells me one night in January. Inside a meeting room guarded by soldiers from the United States and Azerbaijan, 42 men handpicked by Hadithah's US-appointed mayor have just chosen a tribal leader to represent the town on the new provincial council. "These little elections in these little towns - this is the sharp end of the needle hitting the turntable," Geoghegan says. "So much is riding on it. The stakes are so high."

AS GEOGHEGAN DRIVES NORTHWEST, THE ONLY FEATURES in the desert are 400-kilovolt power lines marching alongside the road. Here and there, the steel towers are bent like giants touching their toes. Saboteurs have pulled down the lines to steal the copper inside, crumpling the towers and sapping the power grid. Tribal leaders, the area's traditional authorities, offer to use their clout to halt the thefts. But they seem unable or unwilling to deliver, Geoghegan says.

Geoghegan, who is married, is used to living with a measure of danger, and his latest assignment has one of his sons worried. Over breakfast, Geoghegan relates a phone call from the boy about a gun he saw at a toy store: "Daddy, it's silver, and if you have it, no one can hurt you. You can never die. I wanted to get it for you."

Geoghegan's first stop on his January journey is Al-Asad, a former Iraqi air base set among wind-sculpted canyons. There he meets Vassil Yanco, a consultant from Research Triangle Institute, a non-profit company in North Carolina with a $167 million contract to foster local governance in Iraq. Yanco will lead the meetings with townspeople; Geoghegan is there to help him. The base rarely has visitors from the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, the civilian arm of the occupation. The two were summoned to meet Colonel David Teeples, commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which will control the western desert until mid-March.

Teeples and half a dozen of his top officers sit around a conference table under the dim florescent lights amid gray-green walls. On a stand is a map of Anbar, which takes up nearly a third of Iraq's land mass and stretches to the strategically important Syrian and Jordanian borders. The officers have been running the area essentially alone, so they are wary of Geoghegan and Yanco arriving to tinker with the towns they know best.

The officers' main concern is the deadline for setting up the councils. "Rushing to failure," one calls it. The democracy-building process, Teeples says, seems to be geared mainly toward deadline. And if Anbar ends up with a provincial council no one accepts, it will be soldiers who have to clean up the mess.

Geoghegan says: "I agree completely. I don't see the imperative of rushing to a brink of history when we've already invested so much money, so much time, so much treasure, and so much human life."

It soon emerges that everyone in the room thinks the deadline set by officials in Washington and Baghdad is unrealistic. But they vow to try to carry it out anyway. "We'll do it," Teeples says. But he lays out the problems:

When the regiment arrived last summer, it had to quickly appoint leaders who had local credibility yet were willing to work with US forces. Easiest to identify were sheiks, traditionally recognized tribal leaders. So the military appointed a temporary provincial council dominated by sheiks. But many Iraqis, especially educated urban professionals, say the sheiks did not represent them. Research Triangle Institute's task is to "refresh" the provincial council, to get input from more Iraqis, and to create a diverse membership. In November, the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled there was not enough time to organize fair direct elections, so the council is to be chosen through caucuses.

But picking a caucus - one the community will perceive as representative - will also be time-consuming, Teeples says. Competing groups will accuse one another of being anti-American to win more clout. Getting it right will take multiple visits to dangerous places. And since word of the process has not gotten out - promised Arabic handbills had never arrived from division headquarters - townspeople might not even know about the caucuses unless they are friends of local officials.

Geoghegan tells the officers he suspects some of the deadlines leading up to June 30 might simply vanish under the weight of reality. "You can't order a letter to be delivered if there's no post office," he says. "You can't hold a conference if there's no safe place to hold it in."

GEOGHEGAN HOPS OUT OF A BLACKHAWK helicopter, wearing a Bedouin robe that flaps wildly under the rotors. The governance team has fl own 90 minutes from Asad to Forward Operating Base Byers, near the remote town of Rutbah. The same day, another Blackhawk will be shot down over Falluja.

Geoghegan wears the robe, a gift from a Saudi friend, to appear less like a stranger. It's not an act. He impresses my interpreter with his fluent Arabic. Yanco, a naturalized American citizen born and raised in Iraq by Greek and Slavic parents, passes as an Arab. The men are eager to wade into an Iraqi crowd; to hold hands with other men as they talk, as is customary here; to forge the personal connections that must underlie even the simplest transaction.

"This is where the rubber of empire meets the road," Geoghegan says with a hint of irony. In Rutbah, as elsewhere, the military has set up a makeshift town government, reinstating a former mayor who was fired by Saddam Hussein. The soldiers know that he rules by handing out favors to cronies, but it seems a stable arrangement for now.

The governance team is here to revamp that government, to tell townspeople that they have one week to form caucuses that will expand the town council and to pick a representative to sit on the Anbar provincial council in Ramadi. Yanco asks the soldiers if the town is ready. They opine that most people don't even know there is a town council. "If you try to impose democracy on these people," Captain Edwin Werkheiser says, "it'll be chaos."

Rutbah is a town of boxy yellowish buildings where children play in garbage-strewn streets. Our group rolls up in front of the youth center in a long train of Humvees. One of Yanco's assistants, Meethaq Al-Azawi, lectures about 30 local officials on how to run a city council. The message is that instead of taking orders from Baghdad, they could relay their needs from the bottom up. But eyes glaze over as Al-Azawi lays out the minutiae of local government, the detailed rules set by the United States, and some well-meaning advice (if you have to appoint a new member, promote diversity by choosing a woman or a Christian).

The first questioner gets to the point: "This council, is it going to solve the problems of Rutbah?" He lists the town's needs: clean water, police cars, electricity. "This council will not be useful unless it can find people who will listen." Men cluster around Yanco and Geoghegan, talking about water pumps, sports equipment, jobs. This is what they wanted: someone to listen. But it's time to go. The convoy is leaving.

THREE DAYS LATER, DRIVING TO THE TOWN OF HADITHAH, Geoghegan mulls over the rushed visit. What places like Rutbah need, he says, are civilian US officials who live there long term to build trust gradually and to assist local institutions.

In Hadithah, at least, Geoghegan knows the mayor, Hawash Khalaf Muteb. The mayor, like Geoghegan a silver-haired patrician, teases the American about his robe, introducing him as "the best sheik."

This time, Yanco's team shortens the message, dwelling less on rules. "You should oppose anything you don't think is right," says Al-Azawi. "This is the key to democracy." Dressed in ceremonial robes, the town councilors, all men, listen carefully. They find it hard to believe that they can choose their own council president. "If someone challenges us, we will say you told us," one says. They are surprised to hear they can tell town officials what to do. But they have trouble applying these concepts to their own world. They have no budget, no legislative power, no money, no cars, no way to deliver anything to the town.

But those who want to change the structure of local power find that they have few levers to do so. An intense debate breaks out over whether to hold new town council elections. Some members who want more professionals and fewer sheiks on the council call for a vote; others worry that an election will yield winners without the proper social status. "What if a bad person gets elected? Then what do you do?" is how Geoghegan translates their main concern. "That's a risk of democracy." But ultimately, the US team decides to keep the existing council because of its smooth relations with the effective, sophisticated US-appointed mayor. The only chance to beat the sheiks in a vote will be the caucus two weeks later, when the group returns to Hadithah.

Across the country, the caucuses have inspiring moments, particularly in the south, where Shiites repressed under Hussein generally welcomed the US-led invasion and where American officials can interact more freely with the population. One new council votes out an unpopular governor, and a few hold direct ballots and even elect women. Even in Ramadi, a center of violent resistance to the US effort in Iraq, there are caucuses where opposing factions clash with all the ferment of a New England zoning board meeting. But those gatherings also show why the caucus system will eventually be scrapped.

Keith Mines, Geoghegan's boss and the senior CPA official in Anbar, is caught between keeping the caucuses to a manageable size and leaving some people feeling excluded. He is repeatedly accused of manipulating election outcomes.

At a caucus of educators, teachers complain that a former Baathist official packed the hall with supporters and forbade others to come. "This is appointment, not election!" cries Mahmoud Sabah, a high school English teacher. As dozens rise to walk out, Abdelrahim Khalaf, from the local teachers' institute, pleads with the crowd: "If you walk out, they will appoint someone. . . . They are as convinced about it as they were convinced about the plan to invade Iraq!"

Mines postpones the caucus. But the scene is repeated again and again. By late January, the CPA team in Anbar believes the hunger for self-rule will only be satisfied by real elections. In a memo to CPA head L. Paul Bremer III obtained by the Globe, the team says caucuses are "becoming impossible to defend with a public that is finding its voice and wants to express its will directly." The memo recommends against taking the caucus method to a national stage. It calls either for larger caucuses or for a quick-and-dirty ballot. That would open another Pandora's box: The United States might not like the winners.

ON THE TEAM'S SECOND VISIT TO HADITHAH IN LATE JANUARY, four sheiks, a lawyer, and a poet - all candidates for the provincial council - stand before a caucus of 42 men, making stump speeches a few sentences long. The men cast paper ballots into a box. When the votes are tallied, Fadhel Mehdi Jouad, a leader of the Bu Nimr tribe, and another sheik have won.

In the end, Anbar's new provincial council is more diverse than before, though not as broad-based as the organizers had hoped. The largest newly empowered group is the Islamic Party, which captured 23 of 41 seats. Sheiks control 15. Soon the council will get $1 million to spend on local projects, a bit of real power. Members still get threats: One survived an assassination attempt outside his house.

If it was this challenging to launch councils in a few towns, imagine midwifing a national government as civil strife looms. Under the latest plan, direct national elections must be held by January 2005. But the temporary government that takes power on June 30 will not be elected, and Iraq's powerful Shiite Muslim clerics are already threatening to declare it illegitimate.

To face that challenge as it sets up the temporary government, the United States plans to avoid mistakes it made in January's caucuses. This time, there will be a nationwide media campaign to explain the process, and the United Nations will step in as a neutral arbiter. "We have to get away as much as we can from anything that looks CPA-imposed," says a senior CPA official on condition of anonymity.

Geoghegan tells me there are limits to how much the United States can change in Iraq: Exhortations to Western-style democracy might be ignored. On the other hand, they might well be tolerated. To a sheik in the desert, he says, "you're a traveler. You're some kind of bug in the time warp that he's flying through. He'll be polite and talk to you, and zoom - you're gone. You're off the windshield."

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