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Sunday, April 6

Meeting shows how Marines, Iraqis hope to build a nation

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

OUTSKIRTS OF BAGHDAD, IRAQ - The Marines wanted an airfield. They got hot, sweetened tea instead. The Shiites wanted American reassurances. They got personal promises from a Marine colonel and many gallons of fresh drinking water.

Miles from the main roads outside Baghdad, this impromptu weekend meeting between foreign fighters and local farmers was precisely how Marines wanted to lay the foundation for nation-building in Iraq. The scene was an old Iraqi Air Force base about 15 miles from Baghdad.

Col. John Pomfret, a Pontiac, Mich., native, quickly decided that the skinny runway, covered in truck frames and dirt mounds, probably wouldn't work for the helicopters and cargo planes he needed to land. But he saw another opportunity in the several dozen Iraqis gathered in the dust at the end of the runway.

Walking well in advance of his escorts, forgoing formal security patdowns that might frighten or demean the Iraqis, the colonel smiled, looked in their eyes and firmly shook their hands.

The Shiites had seen their first American troops, a Marine reconnaissance team, just an hour before. While the women and children of 14 families looked on from a living space in the distance, the Iraqi men welcomed the colonel's entourage into a small Air Force building converted into a diwaniyah, the traditional Arab meeting place.

The cool, cement walls were welcome relief from the blistering afternoon heat. The colonel walked across a worn rug and sat at the far end of the room, next to the community patriarch, an old man who stayed mostly silent.

The patriarch's oldest son, 63-year-old Said Brahim, served as ambassador.

``We are so happy to see the American forces,'' Brahim told a Marine translator. His clan took over the buildings after the Iraqis abandoned the airfield more than a decade ago, after the Iran-Iraq War.

The Republican Guard came back in late March, Brahim said, but they quickly left on Wednesday, as the Marines drove toward Baghdad. As Brahim smoked cigarettes and talked, barefoot men and boys of all ages scurried into the room, bringing hot tea and sugar for the visitors. It was a luxury they could hardly afford. ``We are the lowest of the poor people,'' Brahim said. ``We have no value in this country.''

The farmer said his punishment for not joining the Baath Party years ago was limited access to the plentiful water flowing through rivers and canals southeast of Baghdad. Brahim's canals were dry, his wheat less than a foot high only a month before harvest. ``We are farmers, but we don't get the water like the others who are closer to the regime,'' he said, claiming he would be fined and imprisoned if he diverted water from full canals nearby.

Then he talked of the painful experiences of the Shiites under the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim. ``For 35 years, we've been repressed and depressed,'' Brahim said.

About 60 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, though this religious group has never held power in the country. Saddam, the leader of the nation's Sunni Muslim elite, has suppressed Shiite uprisings during his rule, and Shiite assassins have tried to kill him. ``We've been waiting for you to finish this dictator,'' Brahim said. ``We blame George Bush, the father. He didn't finish in 1991.''

Pomfret smiled and nodded with the other Marines. ``The name of our operation is Iraqi Freedom,'' the colonel said. Inshallah, the Iraqis responded, with thumbs up. God willing.

Overcoming barriers

They wore a mix of Arab robes and Western clothes. Brahim's black sandals were among the few shoes. They saved the tea for the Americans and took only small gulps from a shared pitcher of water. One young man interrupted to say that his brother went to war against the Americans. ``Take care of him,'' the man said. ``He was forced to go. I tried to break his arm to keep him out. I almost broke it, but I couldn't do it.''

Pomfret nodded and asked Brahim his opinion on the war. Brahim reasoned his response with quotes from recent news reports and said French and German and American war protesters carried no weight with his family. ``Where were they when we were burying our people in mass graves?'' the farmer asked. ``Our children are without shoes.''

He showed how the clan listens to the Voice of America, the BBC and Canadian broadcasts on a shortwave radio wired to a car battery. Several men in the room made hand-washing signals and demanded an end to the Baath Party.

Brahim suggested that wealthy and learned Iraqi exiles wouldn't be much better if installed by the United States to run the country. ``They wouldn't understand our lives and our problems,'' Brahim said.

``We're trying to build a new Iraq for your children,'' Pomfret responded. ``It will be up to the Iraqi people who leads Iraq.''

If that happens, Brahim said, ``We will build a sculpture of the United States with our hearts.''

One Marine interjected to ask if Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds could truly band together to govern themselves. ``We can live in prosperity, united, but the regime built barriers between us so they can divide us and watch us,'' Brahim responded.

"We want action''

Political debate was far from the most pressing concern for the farmers. A boy among the men had a clouded eye and sores on his feet. They have no access to doctors and little food and water. International humanitarian aid rarely comes to them. Instead, Brahim explained, it is sold on the black market or hoarded by Iraqi troops.

The Marines saw proof of that earlier in the day: rooms full of rice, beans, wheat and flour at an Iraqi military base a few miles away.

``My land can be prosperous,'' Brahim said. ``We can do a lot with it. We can grow any crop on it.''

The Marines briefly considered opening a fresh canal for the farmers. But it was too late in the year to do much good, and the fight still raged just miles away. This time, the Marines could offer only the 30 or so gallons of fresh drinking water in their Humvees. Brahim declined the gift out of pride. Pomfret insisted, and the Marines emptied their jugs.

``You are a king,'' Brahim told the colonel as the hour-long meeting came to an end. ``We don't want anything from you but to free our country. We want action, not talk.''