August 29, 2008

Changes for the Better Raise Hopes

Well, it's my first entry since arriving back in Hillah two weeks ago. It is surprising that during my almost two months away there have been noticeable changes -- and for the better. There are lots of small changes, but collectively they make for a different picture.

People now are out on the streets at 9 or 10 at night. That contrasts with the situation in the spring: when the sun went down, people went home. Women (albeit a small minority) walk in public without headscarves for the first time in over two years. Young people play pop music loudly outdoors, and less often does one hear religious music. Several new restaurants opened in Hillah this summer.

The local population talks about how they feel more relaxed. While some of the Special Groups fled or were broken up in the province last spring, their capabilities have not been eliminated and the terrorist threat remains. Just over a week ago a female suicide bomber in the northern part of the province killed a dozen persons in Iskandariyah. In June a car bomb went off in front of a Hillah cafe.

The big question now is whether the political system will be able to renew itself at the provincial level by holding elections. This would allow the Sunnis, who are a quarter of the provinces population concentrated in the northern part of the province, to be reintegrated in the political process. The term for the provincial council is to lapse shortly, but the Council of Representatives (parliament) has yet to pass a needed election law. Actually the COR passed a law but it was vetoed by the Presidential Council with the Kurds wanting to link the election law to a resolution of the status of Kirkuk, which Kurds want included in their region. It's a very contentious issue, but there is a wide-spread hope that the COR will pass the law again in early September and it will enter into force. That would allow elections by the end of the year or January.

In what I am told was a coincidence, the Provincial Council announced a boycott of the PRT just a day before my return. I have had fun razzing the PC Chairman and others about this, and am hopeful that the ostensible issue (which isn't for this forum) will get resolved soon.

In an effort to incentivize the PC to lift the boycott, we have informed the PC members that the boycott will probably impede our ability to go forward with numerous projects. The underlying political dynamic, however, is the competition among some political parties, which have lost popularity over the last few years, to show themselves to be Iraqi nationalist -- which in itself is good in the sense that it shows they are thinking in national and not sectarian terms. Unfortunately, the US is used as a foil by some to show their nationalist credentials. Some of the persons who go on the radio to discuss the boycott, are some of our best interlocutors in private. It will take adjustments on both sides (Iraqi and American) to adapt to new roles and expectations as we go through a transition process in which the Coalition role changes and becomes more limited as the Iraqis take on increased responsibilities in all areas, not just security.

Changing topics, yesterday I received my second text message in Arabic and I excitedly took it to my interpreter to translate. Was it a message from the Governor? From the PC Chair? No, it was a mass text message to all cell phone users from the Ministry of Health warning that August is a particularly dangerous month for cholera and urging that I visit the local health clinic.

Speaking of health and medicine, there was a small piece on US TV the other evening about medihoney, a new treatment for burns. It is something I had never heard about until I came to Iraq. One of the military bases in Babil Province has for months run a burn clinic on its doorstep to treat Iraqi burn victims with medihoney. Medihoney derives from a plant in New Zealand and has lots of antioxidants and speeds healing. It looks and smells like honey. Burn victims have been coming from all over Iraq to get treatment, earning the base tremendous good will. They are now working on making it an Iraqi-run program.

Of course, it's hot this time of year- around 120F during the day, but this has been a somewhat mild August by Iraqi standards. We haven't gone over 130F for two weeks, which is just fine with me. I had decided to enroll in the 5K run on Sunday at 6:30am (which laps around our compound), but I pulled a calf muscle on the tread mill this evening and am now hobbling around like an old enfeebled man. I would have been the second oldest to run in the race, but now I'll just watch.

Lots of planning has begun for the new military deployments in the coming months, which will impact on the PRTs, some of which are embedded in brigade headquarters. Fewer military here will make it harder to have more PRT engagement, since we have depended on the military for transportation and security in some locations. It seems that Bob Gates has become one of the strongest advocates for increasing the State Department's budget to allow it to fill the more than one thousand vacancies in already authorized positions. Despite being 10% below world-wide authorized levels, the Foreign Service has filled all the positions in Iraq that will come open in the summer of 2009. Last Fall that process had still not filled all summer 2008 vacancies. Remember the famous Town Hall meeting? What a changed situation this year! Part of the reason is that the Dept this year started the bidding season earlier for Iraq positions, and it is now linking Iraq assignments to an onward assignment. Officers now bidding will also be told about their post-Iraq assignment, rather than having to start bidding after arriving here.

Regards from sunny, sizzling southern Iraq where things are getting better and tomorrow is sure to bring change.

1 comment:

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post - From the Front: 08/31/2008 - News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.