"Ms. Stillwater, you will be riding in the Seven-Ton," said the platoon gunner as our convoy started to line up for the two-mile drive into the city of Hit, population 200,000. "A year ago you couldn't even drive down the street here without getting shot at. But now you can go to the market and even walk around without being in any danger." Hey, I'm in a Seven-Ton. I'm good to go.
Still and all, as safe as the streets may be, having the governor come to town is a good opportunity to show off some brute force -- sort of like on Veterans Day. Give the folks a show. And what a show it is! We gots the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police Force and a whole bunch of Marines parading down the main street. We're impressive. We're awesome! You should see me in my flak helmet and vest. I'm awesome too. But really. Hit is now supposed to be a quiet town -- like after Gary Cooper became sheriff in "High Noon". The school marms are safe.
"Jane, you got it completely wrong. It was Lynyrd Skynyrd who sang 'Sweet Home Alabama'. And they didn't shoot the governor either." Sorry about that.
In any case, we rode into town. "I am coming home to you...." Being on the Seven-Ton was like being on a float in the Rose Parade. I was waving like crazy to all the kids. You'd think I was the Queen. No one tried to shoot at us. People actually smiled. This Anbar Model thing may actually work! Hell, it's costing us enough. It had very well better work. "Where the skies are always blue...."
At the Hit High School cafetorium, the governor spoke to approximately 120 municipal officials, tribal leaders, Iraqi police officials and US Marines -- and between all of them, I counted 75 side-arms and 25 M-16s. I myself walked in, saw that I was the only woman in the room, turned around, walked out and went to get a headscarf.
"Thank you for asking me here," said the governor (through a translator). "We are pleased with the stabilization of this area. All of us benefit from being protected because with the rule of law comes prosperity." Then, one by one, representatives from the Iraqi Army, the police, the municipal council of Hit, the local tribal sheiks, etc. gave the governor their input regarding logistics and priorities for setting up the province's budget. Apparently, the provincial officials now have the funds to start the ball rolling bigtime in Anbar but are sitting on them until allocation issues are cleared up.
The health director spoke. "We have the hospital open but don't have any staff because we don't have any funds to pay them." Someone whispered in my ear that doctors are being offered very small salaries here in any case. And the police are also still waiting to get paid as are members of their muni court investigation team. I talked with a member of the team and he asked me to mention that the courts here are very important too. I agree! No more Alberto Gonzales types for Iraq!
Water project problems were also mentioned again and again. Everyone brought that issue up. "We have only had two possible cases of cholera here," said one doctor sitting behind me, "but with sewage leaking into fresh water all around this area, that situation could change for the worse at any time. In the north of Iraq, at least 2,000 people have died from cholera."
All in all, the governor's meeting went well. When I commented to one of the Marines that the governor's guys should get their act together and fix the freaking sewer system, the Marine next to me laughed. "Jane, you just don't understand. All these complaints about water are WONDERFUL. The last time the governor met with Hit municipal reps, all that was talked about was security, security, security. They've really come a long way."
"...Now we all did what we could do."
Anbar province has its good points and its bad points. Bad points? Many parts of Anbar are desolate and barren as hell. A lot of the children I've seen here look undernourished. Poverty is apparent in the rural villages. The Marines I am staying with in the FOB live in fairly primative conditions and there's no pumpkin pie at their dining facility. Heck, they don't even HAVE a DFac. And the internet connections at FOB Hit suck eggs.
And the good points here? Ah, the Marines. They are a well-trained, tight-knit group who write really funny stuff on the walls of the latrines and drive really cool muscle cars with awesome names like "Strykers". And the Iraqis themselves tend to be kind, hospitable and generous to a fault and would give you the shirt off their backs if you act justly and fairly with them. And the people of Anbar are trying really, really hard to make omelets out of the broken eggs handed to them by Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney.
"Does your conscience bother you...."
Then the meeting ended and me and all the Marines popped back in our Humvees, Strykers and Seven-Tons, went to a feast at the municipal building and then went back to Sweet Home FOB Hit. It was a great day. I got to meet the governor -- and NO ONE got shot.
Yes, I am aware that assassinations and car-bombs make more vivid headlines back in America and that "if it bleeds, it leads" sells more newspapers (and blogs), but still.... Peace is good news too. The people of Anbar are tired of being terrorized and being afraid of their own shadow all the time. And now they are willing to come forward and stand up for peace. And if they can do it in the middle of danger-ridden and war-torn Iraq, then we can do it in America too. It's time for us Americans to stop cowering every time we hear of a Code Orange alert and also start standing up for peace.
Guys, you have NO idea how safe and protected and pampered you are back home in America. Most of you would last about three days at FOB Hit -- if that. So. Man up, America and start fighting for PEACE too.
PS: I just found out that while we were in the governor's event, the Marines patrolling the perimeter did find one set of explosives nearby, so I guess I got the best of both worlds -- a positive, hopeful story but with a little bit of excitement thrown in as well.