Stationed in one of the deadliest cities in Iraq, Marine Capt. Rory Quinn has spent months working toward this moment -- the election to choose members of Iraq's governing body, the National Assembly. Quinn and his fellow Marines wait on the sidelines as Iraqis take charge.
"I think in October -- when 10 million Iraqis came out to vote -- we may have inadvertently deterred some additional people from voting by driving our big green and tan trucks around the city," Quinn says. "People know that where Humvees go, attacks usually follow. This time, although we'll be ready to provide emergency assistance if it's needed, it will be completely an Iraqi show."
Quinn explains further in his latest exclusive dispatch for asap, written a few days before Thursday's election:
Well, planning for the Dec. 15 elections is in full swing. Some events in recent weeks have derailed my last several attempts to write, but the elections demand attention. Ramadi is still a very violent place -- probably the most violent city in Iraq right now, with the possible exception of Baghdad. The prospect of holding elections here may seem a spotty proposition at first, but below the surface there are some indicators of real progress. Unfortunately, it's the kind of progress that's hard for individual Marines -- or American citizens -- to see.
Iraq is a very tribal area. It's Eastern, in terms of culture. Not Western. Basic as that may seem, it's something that I think most Americans should keep in mind. Iraqis live in and among their immediate families for most of their lives. Nuclear families remain living within a couple of hundred yards of each other for decades. Areas of town are populated by groups of families clustered together along the same street. If you need to have a car moved, anyone in any house knows who owns it, and can run to get him. That's not the case in my neighborhood in California.
The progress that is occurring in Ramadi is based on the Iraqi tribal system. Some tribes are more powerful than others. Some are more affiliated with the insurgency. It's a very complicated situation. Regardless of the makeup of a particular tribe, though, one thing that they all have in common is that they want us to leave.
That makes two of us.
The citizens of Ramadi want to run their own government, control traffic at their own bridge crossings, and police their own streets. We currently have a heavy influence in all those activities. It is a blow to Iraqi national pride. It also gets in the way of sidebar business arrangements that have historically been a source of income for the tribes. The reality of the situation, however, is they won't be able to start doing any of those things until artillery shells stop detonating on street corners. The local Iraqis -- as compared to the al-Qaida in Iraq terrorists who are also in this city -- have to assert their independence and insist that the IEDs stop blowing up in order for things to move forward at all.
Here's the sign of progress: The locals are apparently seizing the Dec. 15 elections as a vehicle to show their independence.
U.S. forces in Iraq have been planning to assist with the December elections in the same manner we assisted with the October constitutional referendum. We were to secure election sites, patrol the streets in armored Humvees, and move all the logistics required to vote -- everything from the ballots to the barriers.
But as election day nears, the Iraqis have insisted that they run it all themselves. They'll move the logistics into place, they'll handle voting procedures, and they'll apparently handle their own security. If I had to guess, I'd say the tribes will provide the security personnel. Everything else here works around the tribes -- it only makes sense that election security would as well.
U.S. forces will still have a role, for sure, but it will be much reduced from what we had last time. I think in October -- when 10 million Iraqis came out to vote -- we may have inadvertently deterred some additional people from voting by driving our big green and tan trucks around the city. People know that where the Humvees go, attacks usually follow. This time, although we'll be ready to provide emergency assistance if it's needed, it will be completely an Iraqi show.
All of this, in the most dangerous city in Iraq. With al-Qaida in our midst, trying to ensure that fear will win out over freedom. Iraqis I've talked to tell me that the terrorists advertise death as the price of going to vote.
The stage is being set. With each passing day, the deck becomes more stacked against the terrorists. If they plan to disrupt the elections, they've got some unattractive choices to make. One car bomb into a crowd of innocent Ramadi citizens will polarize the city against them for months. Even the pro-insurgency tribes are getting tired of the al-Qaida types hurting innocent people, I think.
About a month ago, an IED went off next to a city bus, killing six citizens and wounding 13. The people started to lay down the law. Resentment against al-Qaida was on the tip of everyone's tongue in the streets. For Iraqis to be telling Americans that they resent the insurgents is significant. It will be an even worse situation if they blow up a polling center.
I suppose they can continue trying to kill us. The distinction between "the resistance" and the terrorists that Iraqi politicians have been publicizing lately has left a sour taste in my mouth. If you're not familiar with the distinction, it goes like this: Kill Iraqi civilians and you're a terrorist. That's a bad thing. Kill coalition forces? That's totally acceptable. That's "the resistance" and it's a distinct right of every Iraqi to do so. This hasn't exactly ingratiated the average citizen to me. But it's another sign of an emerging rift between the native insurgents, or perhaps the resistance, and the al-Qaida in Iraq guys who follow Zarqawi.
Either way, Dec. 15 will be a historic day. The terrorists missed their chance in October. Had the Constitution failed, we'd be right back where we started a year ago. But because it passed, this Thursday the Al Anbar province will elect nine representatives to serve in Iraq's parliament for four years. The new government isn't in doubt. It's coming. It's just a question of which nine citizens will go as Anbar representatives.
As violent and as inefficient as things are here, there's a democratic government being born. And this voting day, U.S. forces will be a lot less involved. Almost like we're not needed. Almost like we could go home and no one would notice.
It will be a nice trial run.
There's still a lot of work to be done, though. Until artillery shells stop blowing up on street corners, that work will have to be done by men in armored trucks with high-caliber weapons. But I can see the day coming when city police in fiberglass sedans will patrol the streets, cleaning out the last dirty corners of the resistence/insurgency or whatever the most politically correct term is.
Winston Churchill, talking about a key turning point battle in World War II, once said, "It was not the end, or even the beginning of the end. But it was the end of the beginning."
We've already reached the end of the beginning. We got there the day the first Iraqi Army battalion stood up as a unit. Right now, we're closer to the end than we may even realize. Almost three years into this war, there aren't many new military tactics to apply. We're pushing daily at the limit of our military capability, and we're just holding the status quo. We won't lose this militarily. But counterinsurgencies are not won militarily either. This is a war that's going to be won or lost now through the course of politics -- not by large battles whose names will be recited by school children years from now.
On the day of the first Iraqi national parliamentary elections, history will be made, for better or worse. The Iraqis will stand independently and exercise democracy.
And unless all hell starts breaking loose, I'll be sitting on my firm base, drinking coffee, listening to Iraqis solving Iraqi problems on the radios in the combat operations center. The Humvees will be staged outside in rapid response mode, but the engines will be off. Possibly all day long.