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Liberating Iraqis, American Style
Sep 8th, 2003 at 1:48pm
 
Liberating Iraqis, American Style

Medea Benjamin, AlterNet
September 3, 2003


Majid Muhammed Yousef yearns for democracy. As an Iraqi Kurd, he and his family
suffered tremendously under Saddam Hussein. After the U.S. overthrew Saddam,
Majid was grateful and excited about building a new Iraq. But the first four
months of U.S. occupation have left him wondering what America means by
democracy.

At the end of May, a group of U.S. soldiers came to his neighborhood in a
dangerous section of Baghdad and convened a meeting. The neighborhood badly
needed some help. Since the war, there was a breakdown in law and order.
Gangs roamed at will, looting the small businesses and shooting each other (and
innocent bystanders) in turf wars. The women were afraid to go outside, and
businesses were closing down. Majid, who sold electrical appliances out of his
home, was having a hard time supporting his wife and three children. Something
had to be done to make the neighborhood safe again.

At the meeting, the soldiers announced that they were going to supervise
elections for a local council and asked people to put themselves forward as
candidates. The council members would not be paid, they were told, but they
would receive the assistance of the U.S. military in making local improvements.

Majid was happy to see this initiative, but he decided not to put his name
forward for the local council. He didn't like the American occupiers. He cringed
when he saw the soldiers barreling down the narrow streets in their ferocious
tanks, guns pointed at the locals. "It's just like Palestine or Beirut," he said
disapprovingly. "No one likes to have their country occupied, and I didn't want
to be a collaborator."

But his neighbors pushed him forward as a natural community leader. When the
garbage had piled up in streets, threatening the health of the community, Majid
used his own money to have a truck come clear it up. When robbers entered the
shop on the corner, Majid quickly gathered a group of men to chase them out of
the neighborhood. He was a local hero and the people clamored for him to
represent them. "I reluctantly entered the race at the last minute and got 55 of
the 80 votes," he recalled. Then he broke into a smile and said, "Imagine if I
had campaigned. It would have been a landslide."

Five local councils members were selected from a slate of eleven. Majid, who got
the highest number of votes, was made president. The elections took place on
June 2, and their first meeting with the U.S. authorities was scheduled for June
7 at 10 A.M. The five members of the newly elected council were at the
designated meeting place bright and early. Standing outside in the hot sun, they
waited, and waited, and waited. After several hours, they were told to go home;
the meeting had been cancelled.
"There was no explanation," said an annoyed Majid, "and no apology about keeping
us waiting for hours."

A few days later the Americans came to Majid's house with an assignment. They
wanted him and the council to do a report about the neighborhood's problems and
suggest solutions. They also wanted him to do an inventory of the weapons people
kept in their homes. He bristled at the latter task -- it was too intrusive and
would make people even more helpless by taking away their ability to defend
themselves. But Majid set about the first task with great enthusiasm. He and his
fellow council members went from house to house, asking for input. They came up
with a thick report chock full of suggestions that ranged from turning off the
electricity during the day so that it could be on in the evening to keep away
the nocturnal looters to outlawing dark windows in cars to make its occupants
visible.

With a great sense of accomplishment, the council finished its report on June
11, a mere 9 days after they were elected. When they went to turn in the report,
however, they were told that the council had been disbanded and they should go
home. Majid and his fellow councilmembers were stunned. They were given no
reason for their dismissal. In less than two weeks, they had been elected and
fired. It made no sense.

"Perhaps we made too many suggestions. Perhaps they didn't like our
suggestions," said Majid, struggling to find an explanation. "Or perhaps this is
democracy, American-style. In any case, what can we do? They are the occupiers
and we are the occupied."

Medea Benjamin is the founding director of the human rights group Global
Exchange and the International Occupation Watch Center
http://www.occupationwatch.org
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