Friday, February 15, 2008

Back and Forth with the Sheiks of Bayji

February 15, 2008

What is an acceptable amount of violence? In a warzone there would appear to be no right answer. The number of U.S. casualties is relatively small compared to other wars, but the number continues to grow, and for anyone connected to any of these casualties, the number is too high.
Many Americans are lucky enough to be able to endure the war in Iraq from a safe distance, never knowing how it feels to lose a son or father, a brother or husband, or a best friend, to violence. Is there anyone in Iraq who knows this kind of luck?
Every day somewhere in Iraq people are meeting to discuss the violence that keeps Iraq from moving forward. The city of Bayji is no different. Recently Captain Tim Meadors, of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade, met with a group of sheiks to discuss the tensions that plague the city while members of the 1st Battalion’s Alpha Company stood guard.
The sheiks present at the meeting were all family leaders from the same tribe. They complained of feeling vulnerable and victimized because the Bayji police force is comprised of members of a different tribe, whom they feel are using their position to commit crimes for which they will never be punished.
One by one, Iraqi women shrouded in black were brought into the room where the meeting took place to recite their losses. Usually women are kept in the shadows, but obviously the sheiks believed theirs was not the only voice that needed to be heard. One of the women asked Captain Meadors why the American soldiers had allowed her son to be killed.
In a more perfect Iraq, our soldiers would leave the detention and prosecution of anti-Coalition forces to the Iraqi police and soldiers. In the Iraq that we’re dealing with today, we might detain an Iraqi whom we consider suspicious, worthy of further questioning, but if he is handed over to the Iraqi authorities for this part of the process, the detainee may wind up dead. And then we are faced with a grieving and furious mother.
It is true that the Bayji police force does not accurately reflect the tribes of the city. But is this our fault? Is it possible to correct the problem? Can members of different tribes work together? Of course they can if they want to badly enough, if they are sufficiently fed up with the status quo.
Across Iraq there has been a movement among sheiks to do something to reduce the amount of violence in their country. In their towns and cities, they have formed groups called the Awakening Council, made up of men who act as another layer of security. Recently, our forces have tried to support this effort, calling these groups Concerned Local Citizens (CLC).
Because the CLC groups are formed under the supervision of area sheiks, they offer each tribe better representation. In Bayji, the hope is that some CLC members will evolve into police officers and help create a more balanced police force. That is the hope. The reality is that some CLC members sign up simply for the power that comes with the position. CLC groups man checkpoints throughout the city, checkpoints where abuses of power can occur—against members of other tribes, and against us. If they are the ones watching the road, they can choose to look the other way when IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are placed in the road, or they can set them up themselves.
The day after the meeting with the sheiks, Captain Meadors and Lieutenant Colonel Pete Wilhelm met with CLC leaders, the Mayor, and the Chief of Police of Bayji. The goal, similar to that of the sheiks’ meeting, was to acknowledge that everyone who plays a part in the city’s leadership shares in the responsibility of putting a stop to the violence.
One of the sheiks present pointed out that there are members of the police department, members of the Iraqi Army, and members of the CLC who commit acts of violence against the Iraqi people and Coalition Forces. And each of these three forces has also been known to attack the others. So if the security situation in Iraq is a glass, it is half empty, and you should probably stick to bottled water if you are thirsty.
Everyone in Iraq has been touched by violence. At a very early age, Iraqis learn that life brings with it a certain amount of loss. It is how they decide to respond to that loss that will determine whether or not their quality of life will improve.
At the sheiks’ meeting, it was clear that even while Captain Meadors lobbied for peaceful solutions and cooperation between tribes, they were not ready to let go of their anger. Sometimes anger is a useful shield against grief and sorrow, but sometimes it is nothing but an obstacle and a waste of energy.
It is important to remember that justice as we know it is a fairly new concept in Iraq. Where revenge usually rules, it may take awhile to trust in a system that assumes everyone is equal, and no one is above the law.
Earlier in the same week as the sheiks’ meeting and the CLC meeting, a wedding had taken place, and those present had been out celebrating. It is customary to fire shots in the air as part of the festivities (and yes, our soldiers have included “weddings” on their mental checklist of reasons why they might be hearing gunshots on certain days of the week). Enthusiastic members of the wedding party had encountered equally enthusiastic members of the CLC, and the celebration turned deadly for at least one person. This is the sort of occurrence that makes us shake our heads and wonder if this is a country beyond repair.
The Bayji Police Chief drafted a law stating that wedding celebrants are not to fire gunshots as part of the celebration from now on. If shots are fired, the groom will spend his first night as a married man in jail. The Mayor smiled and nodded his head in approval when the proposed law and punishment were presented.
Embracing the future doesn’t have to mean forgetting the past, but in Iraq, it may be time to put some traditions to rest. Time to replace bullets with birdseed. Time to say enough is enough.

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