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[casi] For a Town Council in Iraq, Many Queries, Few Answers

July 9, 2003

For a Town Council in Iraq, Many Queries, Few Answers


BU GHRAIB, Iraq, July 5  On a recent morning, the Abu Ghraib town council
was hearing the usual litany of complaints, offering its usual mix of help
and, mostly, impotence in return. Overhead, a fan turned, but the air did

The constituents' woes came down to the essentials. They had no power, and
thus no clean water  could they get generators? They had no security 
could they get weapons permits?

If anyone could help them, it should have been the man at the center of the
scene, Dari Hamis al-Dari. In April, he was selected by the local tribes to
lead Iraq's first freely formed town council after the fall of Saddam
Hussein. Since then, he has sat at a desk in a white robe and headdress, in
a room lined with men in tribal robes and Western dress all looking to him
for answers. He has not had many.

Mr. Dari could do nothing for the man who, lacking electricity, stayed up
all night fanning a sick child, nothing for the 5-year-old child who was
left legless by unexploded ordnance that detonated, a sight that caused him
to weep. He could do nothing for the multitudes complaining of cars, weapons
or relatives taken by American forces, other than give their names to the
Americans. He could do nothing for those lacking drinking water or waiting
for food rations.

"What do you tell the people  have more patience?" he asked rhetorically.
"Till when?"

If America has natural allies in Iraq, they are men like Mr. Dari. He
attended the American Jesuit school in Baghdad, then university in
Frankfurt. He has lived in Europe and speaks excellent English. He
maintained his independence throughout Mr. Hussein's rule, shunning the
material blandishments with which Mr. Hussein bought the loyalty of many
tribal sheiks.

A part-time farmer and businessman, he is a member of the sizable Zobaa
tribe, which his brother leads. He welcomed the Americans and has worked
closely with their military commanders in his area.

So the impatience creeping into his voice and the frustration lining his
handsome face bode poorly for the fate of the American-led occupation here 
even if American officials succeed in drawing Iraqis into a new national
leadership. There is no indication that Mr. Dari, who is 64, would turn on
the Americans. He is simply losing faith in them.

"Conditions have never been worse," he said bluntly. "We've never been
through such a long bad period."

Abu Ghraib  a largely agricultural area just west of Baghdad that is also
home to Iraq's most notorious prison  has had only one to three hours of
power a day in recent weeks. Drinking water cannot be pumped without
electricity, so people take water from dirty canals.

The food ration system that functioned smoothly under Saddam Hussein is
breaking down, out here at least. Trucks leave Baghdad laden with food, but
it mysteriously gets offloaded at markets along the way.

Crime, rare under the old government, is rampant. Mr. Dari's car was taken
from him at gunpoint in Baghdad recently. Four of his council members have
been the victims of carjacking attempts. And while the criminals are
well-armed, the Americans are disarming the victims, taking weapons while
the weapons licenses they insist on are in short supply.

"People here feel naked without their pistols," Mr. Dari said, putting his
own in a holster.

In a time of rising discontent, Mr. Dari is the buffer between occupier and
occupied. It is a role that, historically, has earned little appreciation.
Recent attacks on Iraqis cooperating with the Americans suggest that this
chapter will be no different.

"We are stuck between the Americans and our people," Mr. Dari said of the
council, which sits, for no salary, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. "And there
were so many promises from one side."

Some people are calling the council members "America lovers" and traitors,
he said, because they are working with the Americans.

"He's caught in the middle," one of his American partners, Lt. Col. Jeff
Ingram of the First Armored Division, acknowledged. "He defends us a lot."

These days, Mr. Dari is warning the Americans more than he is defending
them. When he first met with them, he said, he told them that they did not
have much time to meet people's expectations. That time is almost up, he

"I'm not threatening you with another Vietnam  God forbid," he said. "I'm
just trying to get help for the people before something happens."

Something is already happening, of course. Out here, as across much of Iraq,
the attacks on Americans are stepping up. Colonel Ingram said his company is
being attacked at least once a day, fortunately by men who are not very good

Colonel Ingram blames the Iraqis for most of the area's problems, saying it
is they who have torn down the power lines he fixed, they who are robbing
one another. "The U.S. is not the problem, it's the solution," he said.

But he too wonders about the slow pace of rebuilding. "I would have expected
the U.S., the biggest country in the world, to say here's the water
purification system, here's the big generator," he said.

As of the other day, neither Mr. Dari nor Colonel Ingram had ever had any
contact with the American-led civilian administration ostensibly governing
Iraq, although Mr. Dari oversees an area that is home to 900,000 people.

So they soldier on alone, often seeking progress in vain. The council tried
to distribute generators found at a Republican Guard camp to villages, but
found that many of the village "representatives" were driving out of the
camp and selling the generators. Others were being set upon by angry mobs
wanting the generators for themselves.

American soldiers were deployed to keep order, but in the heat and chaos
their tempers frayed. They broke windshields and cursed at Iraqis, further
shrinking the reservoir of good will.

Mr. Dari said he received 10 to 12 complaints a day about weapons, cars or
relatives taken by the Americans. One man came to report that American
soldiers had taken away his deaf relative a month ago for having a picture
of Saddam Hussein in his house, and that he had not been seen since.
Officials from an Islamic charity said the Americans had confiscated their
car and raided their office  then left both unsecured, giving looters free

Then there are the small problems. The woman who is illegally squatting in a
government building (American soldiers told Mr. Dari they could not evict
her unless she threatened someone; property rights were not in their
"purview.") The two council members whom the council dismissed for
corruption. The effort to find the American commander with the authority to
sign a contract for garbage collection.

Mr. Dari is just old enough to remember when the British had an air base
just west of here. They told Iraqis they had come to liberate them from the
Ottomans, he recalled, and they stayed 40 years.

"I hope history isn't repeating itself," he said, and pressed his temples as
if hoping to make the impatient men at both elbows disappear.

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