|In a Hostile Land, Trying Whatever Works |
U.S. Officials in Iraq Learn to Adapt to Local Rules
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 23, 2003; Page A01
RAMADI, Iraq -- When American diplomat Keith Mines wanted the bombed-out Baath Party headquarters here torn down, he began with contracting rules issued by the U.S. occupation authority. He posted an official notice soliciting bids. A week later, he accepted several sealed proposals, planning to choose the lowest bid.
Then Hamid Rashid Mahenna, an influential tribal sheik, heard about the contract. Mahenna wears suede jackets and a red-and-white headscarf, smokes Dunhill cigarettes, and owns a construction company. His tribesmen had been helping U.S. forces in Ramadi -- and he figured it was payback time. After the deadline, he drove up in his white Mercedes and handed Mines four sealed envelopes. Inside, Mines said, were bids far higher than those from other Iraqi contractors.
Mines, a 6-foot-5 Colorado native who is responsible for administering western Iraq, faced a choice. He could follow the rules and lose an ally, or make an exception to make a friend in one of Iraq's most hostile Sunni Muslim neighborhoods.
The recent capture of ousted president Saddam Hussein has intensified debate in Baghdad and Washington about how to reach out to Iraq's Sunnis, a minority that dominated Hussein's Baath Party. The answer might be found here. Mines is an example of how U.S. officials in the field, often working in dangerous conditions and isolated provinces, are embracing unorthodox, creative and daring approaches to build alliances with local power brokers.
After receiving Mahenna's bids, Mines said he met with the sheik and began bargaining. Mahenna eventually got a contract worth $35,000 -- about $15,000 more than what the lowest bidder offered.
"He's been very helpful to us. He's a force for stability in this area," said Mines, a State Department political officer with gray-streaked hair whose prior assignments in Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti have left him with a sense of steadiness in the midst of postwar chaos.
Mines is taking unusual, even desperate gambles to win over the Sunnis in this town, and it is not yet clear whether they will pay off. Attacks on U.S. forces persist in Ramadi and the surrounding province of Anbar. Anger at the occupation also has not abated. But Mines insisted that courting sheiks such as Mahenna remains his best -- and perhaps only -- option.
"The war is going to be won or lost here," Mines said as gunfire of undetermined origin echoed across the city. "The Sunnis are the spoilers. If they're not satisfied with how things go in the next six months, they'll take the whole project down."
Mines, 46, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and has a talkative manner, was working at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest when he answered a call this summer for diplomats to work for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. Arriving in Iraq in August, he assumed he would be pulling a six-month stint as a policy planner in the marble-walled, heavily fortified Baghdad palace that serves as the authority's headquarters.
After a few days, the assignment changed. "They said, 'We need you to go to Ramadi,' " he recalled. "It wasn't what I was expecting."
Ramadi's residents are almost all Sunnis -- a once privileged but now resentful constituency whose acquiescence has become a top goal for U.S. strategists trying to construct a viable provisional government. Motivated by lingering loyalty to Hussein and angry over their loss of influence, Sunnis have been responsible for the vast majority of attacks on U.S. forces that have destabilized the occupation.
Built along the Euphrates River about 60 miles west of Baghdad, Ramadi is a city of boxy concrete buildings surrounded by date groves, farmland and barren desert. Home to scores of Baathists, it is rated by the U.S. military as one of the most dangerous places for Americans in Iraq. U.S. troops in the city are regularly the target of roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
In other places where he was posted, Mines said his best diplomatic work occurred outside his office. But in Ramadi, getting out has been difficult, if not impossible.
Security rules require him to live on a large U.S. military base and to drive with an Army escort. A head taller than most Iraqis and unmistakably Caucasian, he avoids walking around the city. On the rare occasions when he wants to travel without soldiers in tow, he tucks himself into the back of a taxi with tinted windows driven by an Iraqi man he trusts.
"I miss not being able to talk to people in the market," he said. "I want to ask them, 'What do you think of us?' You can't go bopping around. It's very limiting."
In an attempt to draw Iraqis to him, one of his first decisions upon arriving in Ramadi was to renovate a two-room suite in the governor's office that he shares with a team of Army civil affairs specialists. The office, located a few miles from the base, had been trashed by looters. He turned it into a welcoming salon.
The second-floor suite now has a brown sofa, plastic lawn furniture and more visitors than it can accommodate, from angry former soldiers seeking compensation from the U.S. military to sheiks inquiring whether they have won contracts. Mines, who eschews traditional American reconstruction garb -- the khaki vest and combat boots -- for a suit and tie, spends more time listening to grievances than barking orders. On a recent morning, he sat on the sofa and met with a man who launched into a lengthy story about how his son was detained by U.S. soldiers after mistakenly colliding with a military truck. His hands clasped and his gaze intense, Mines heard the man out and then promised to look into the matter.
But as he reclined on the sofa after the meeting and observed other interactions in the room, with Iraqis showing deference to uniformed soldiers, Mines acknowledged that he was dealing with a selective group. The young men in the nearby market who praise the insurgents were not there. Nor were religious leaders who view the occupation as illegitimate.
"I know I'm only getting a narrow slice," he said. "There's a lot we miss. There's no question."
Security restrictions also have kept American contractors from working in Anbar Province. Bechtel Corp. is not rebuilding schools here as it is elsewhere. The Research Triangle Institute is not leading democracy-building workshops here.
The lack of reconstruction activities has hindered American efforts to reach out to Sunnis, Mines said. "We keep telling them we're here to help," he said, "but it's tough when they don't see the same work going on here that's happening elsewhere in Iraq."
Mines tackles his job with a degree of candor and creativity unusual within the politicized bureaucracy of the CPA. He said U.S. forces lacked "ground truth" on the dynamics of the resistance. More insurgent activity is driven by simple anger at the occupation -- instead of Baathist loyalty -- "than we'd like to admit," he added.
At a recent meeting between CPA staffers and Iraqi political leader Ahmed Chalabi, who favors taking a hard line against former Baathists working in the government, Mines was the only person in the room to suggest more emphasis needed to be placed on reconciliation, according to people who attended the session.
Mines said he believed that finding a way to allow some former Baathists to return to work was a key component of promoting stability in Anbar, where thousands of people belonged to the party.
"We need to get the Sunnis involved," he said. "If not, we'll never end the violence."
Bridge to the Community
Mines recently decided the first step toward building more support for Anbar's government would be to form a new provincial council. He concluded that the current 51-member council, established by the military in July, had too many members from Ramadi and not enough from the rest of Anbar, a province the size of Wyoming that stretches from Baghdad's western fringe to Iraq's border with Syria and Jordan.
His initial hope, he recalled, was that political parties, trade unions and civic organizations would take an active role in governance, as they have in Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq where rival Shiite Muslims are in the majority. But his hope was unfulfilled. In the south, parties blossomed from underground Shiite movements that opposed the Sunni-dominated Baath Party. But in Anbar, most parties are recent creations, started either by exiles or by aspiring local politicians. Few Sunnis have rushed to join.
"People have a very bad feeling about parties after the Baath Party," said Abdul Karim Burgis, Anbar's governor.
Faced with no other option, Mines said he had been forced to turn to the same coterie of elderly men upon which Hussein -- and Iraqi leaders before him -- relied: tribal sheiks.
Of the 40 seats on the new provincial council, Mines said he intended to reserve 10 for tribal leaders; the other 30 would be chosen through town meetings across Anbar. In another move to win over the sheiks, he also plans to form a separate tribal council that will advise the provincial council and the governor.
Iraq's tribal chieftains are defined by opportunism as much as tradition. Many of Anbar's leading sheiks accepted cars, money and other favors from Hussein in return for their loyalty. Many of them have chosen to support the Americans now, Mines said, simply because they want American reconstruction contracts.
"I don't have a lot of other options," Mines said. "The sheiks are a valuable bridge into the community."
A key uncertainty in the gamble Mines has taken is whether or not the sheiks will deliver. Thus far, the sheiks have not lessened the resistance, prompting questions about whether tribal leaders are doing enough to bring their followers in line. But sheiks in Ramadi insist their power only goes so far. "We try, but we cannot control every one of our members," said Bazia Gaoud, the stout leader of the Bunimir tribe.
Mines regards the sheiks as helpful interlocutors but not all-powerful American agents. "It's the traditional Bedouin democracy," he said. "They're actively dealing with us on behalf of their constituents."
"A sheik has no power without contracts," Mahenna said as he puffed on a cigarette. "If I do not provide for my people, they will not cooperate with me."
When Mahenna, who leads the Bu-Alwan tribe, heard that Mines was looking for a contractor to tear down the Baath Party headquarters and build a park dedicated to peace, the sheik swung into action. He had his construction company -- one of several businesses he owns -- draw up four sealed bids for Mines, ranging from $75,000 to $120,000.
As he handed over envelopes, Mines recalled him saying, "I hope you'll be fair to me."
When Mines opened the bids, he was floored. Other contractors in Ramadi had offered to do the job for around $20,000, he said.
"It was just way out of the ballpark," he said.
But Mines was reluctant to spurn Mahenna, a suave man with a physics degree and extensive political connections in Anbar. So Mines, who has the authority to issue contracts up to $100,000 without higher approval, made an exception. Instead of choosing the lowest bidder, he called in Mahenna and began to negotiate. He finally bargained him down to $35,000.
"When we have a tribal issue at stake, we do a controlled bidding process to make sure the contract goes to the right person," he said.
His decision pleased the American military commander in charge of patrolling Ramadi. "Keith has had a real eye-opener," said Lt. Col. Hector Mirabile of the 1st Battalion of the Florida National Guard's 124th Infantry Regiment. "He came in with this American methodology of awarding contracts with a fair and impartial process. But when you have sheiks running the show, everyone wants their money."
Mirabile, a major in the Miami police force, said Mines had "become the consummate politician" since arriving in Ramadi. "He's been Iraqicized."
'Big Contracts Are Coming'
Mines formally awarded the contract to Mahenna on Thursday at a small ceremony in the reception room Mines built. Twenty-two other contracts also were handed out -- totaling nearly $1 million.
After the event was over, Mahenna sulked. "This is not enough money for me," he said. "I was good to the coalition forces, but they didn't treat me in a special way. Keith must do more to reward the people who are helping him."
A few minutes later, as Mines walked downstairs, Mahenna followed, his red-and-white headdress flapping.
"Thirty-five thousand is nothing," Mahenna told Mines, in an openly complaining tone. "What am I going to tell my people?"
"You're going to tell them we have a park," Mines responded.
"It's not enough," Mahenna protested.
"The big contracts are coming," Mines said. "We're just getting started."
With that, Mahenna pulled out three envelopes from his leather folder. Inside were bids for other contracts. "These I want for me," he said, thrusting the envelopes at Mines.
Then Mahenna got in his Mercedes and drove away.
"Dealing with the sheiks isn't easy," Mines said as he watched the car pull out of the parking lot. "But we don't have another choice."