At Al-Hewar Center

The Current Role of the U.S. in Iraq

David Ballard

On May 12, 2004, Al-Hewar Center welcomed Mr. David Ballard, the Director of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Press to speak about the United States’ current role in Iraq. A career diplomat, Mr. Ballard has served in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, as well as several other countries. He recently spent time in Iraq, from November 2003 to February 2004, to establish the Public Affairs Office of the future U.S. Embassy and to arrange town hall meetings in many Iraqi cities. Mr. Mazhar Samman moderated the Al‑Hewar Center event.

Mr. Ballard described three aspects that are often lost in the context of what is happening in Iraq: (1) The work of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA); (2) The international nature of the effort in Iraq; and (3) Steps that Iraqis are taking toward their own democratic future. He made it clear that he could not speak for the military.

When people think of the CPA, he said, they think of Ambassador Bremmer, the Green Zone, and the Republican Palace in Baghdad. But they also need to know that there is a CPA office in every single province in Iraq – 18 in all. In each capital, there is a CPA team that works with local authorities on all kinds of things: local administration, economic projects, reconstruction projects, employment stimulation, and democratization of local governments. This is building concepts of citizenship and democratic institutions. Those teams have a lot of money and spend it on a lot of projects. They work everyday with various local authorities trying to help them, counsel them, and coordinate with them if they have conflicting priorities. They also coordinate with the local military component, though all of the members of the CPA are civilians.

Turning to the international nature of the effort, Ballard noted that the media often interchanges the terms U.S., CPA, American, and Coalition. That is a disservice to the many other nations that are working in the CPA, he said, and who are working themselves to set up bilateral relationships as embassies in the future. It is not just an American operation. Every one of the 18 teams is multinational – not just American or British. Every team has to deal with a military component that is also multinational. Many parts of Iraq do not have an American military presence, such as Basra, which has the British military, and Sumawa, where it is the Japanese and the Dutch. Other areas have Ukrainian and until recently, Spanish forces. The concept that the CPA is a completely American institution or that the coalition forces are the same thing as U.S. troops is incorrect, he said, and that is unfair to the nations and individuals who volunteered to work for the rebuilding of Iraq and are working for a common goal in that country.

Regarding the steps that the Iraqis themselves are taking, although Iraq is facing a lot of severe problems, prefaced Ballard, a lot of reassuring things are happening in Iraqi society. Because of his interactions with many people in many different cities, Ballard said he left Iraq feeling more reassured about the future of the country than he felt when he arrived. There are a lot of changes and challenges in Iraq: political transitions, the future of the country, how a transitional government would be formed, what are the steps that lead to an elected permanent government? “We found that Iraqi citizens, quite understandably, did not understand the details, did not know what the steps were, and no one was explaining things to them.” The CPA came up with the idea of hosting town hall meetings as a means for citizens to express themselves, complain, ask questions, etc., and to give the leaders an opportunity to provide answers and explanations.

Ballard’s job was to go to the different provinces and help local leaders figure out how to organize and lead the town hall meetings – who to invite, what to say, the format, what subjects to stress, etc. Some fascinating things emerged from the meetings, he said. First, the concept of decentralization began taking hold. People did not instantly grasp the concept that their local government should reflect their concerns and be responsive to their priorities, but in every place he visited, he saw that the people were very interested in the idea that they could hold their leaders accountable for their needs and that those leaders would be local people who they knew. The idea was very attractive to them. That led to a second thing that was unique in Iraqi experience – people began saying things that they had never verbalized before.

In Kirkuk, for example, the CPA met with people interested in hosting a town hall meeting. Representatives of the three groups who are always portrayed as in tense competition for the city – Sunnis, Kurds, and Turkomen – all stood up and made long speeches about their grievances and about how they had been oppressed and how they were the overwhelming majority of the population of the city and how they had specific demands. This was fascinating, said Ballard, because although everyone in the town had always known what everyone else thought, they had never been able to air their grievances publicly before. It did not lead to instant love, but there developed an understanding that other people had legitimate grievances and a right to state priorities that were different from another group’s. The important thing was to find a way for local people to solve local issues – another reflection of this concept of decentralization. We will see a great deal more of this, Ballard believes, regardless of the difficulties that lie ahead. The idea that the people should have a choice in how their towns, regions, and country are governed is beginning to take hold, as is the idea that whatever they demand from their society, they must respect the fact that other people have legitimate demands too and that a way must be found to make everyone feel enfranchised.

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