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January 23, 2005

". . . they will have to kill me to keep me from voting"

Ronald Wassom, a retired AF Colonel is in Iraq working with the U.S. Army Corps Engineers. Here's a column he recently sent to his hometown newspaper from his current base at Al Ramadi.:

The construction of border forts along the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders was a failure three months ago. The forts were built but there were no Iraqi National Guards or border police to protect them. As a result, they were looted, the air conditioners, hot water heaters, light fixtures, even the copper wire were stolen and then they were vandalized. One was booby-trapped so that the next group of looters who haplessly wandered in stumbled over the detonator to a 105 MM improvised explosive device and they and the newly constructed fort were blown to kingdom come.

Much of this is not the work of terrorists, per se, but of criminals whose numbers have exploded since the fall of Saddam. But at the status briefing this morning there was a subtle change. So subtle that the new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program managers here did not even realize that it happened A border fort was completed and was turned over to Iraqi forces who will man it and protect it at the border. These forts will help to check the flow of insurgents from Syria. Progress is slow, but it is happening in this timeless desert!

A light rain fell during the night, enough to turn the sand around Camp Blue Diamond into a sticky mud. The ruts made by Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles have little pockets of water in them. Water is a precious commodity in the Middle East. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to solve many of the water problems for Iraqis.

After the hostilities in Fallujah, the corps sent teams with emergency water for the people left behind. Then contractors were hired by the corps to set up emergency water distribution points. These were water tanks filled with clean water where people came to fill their jerry cans and buckets; can you imagine doing that in Battle Creek? Now there is a major effort to install new water systems and to rehabilitate the old. These projects are being done for the Iraqi people largely by Iraqi contractors with corps assistance.

An interesting historical note is that Saddam Hussein not only diverted water from the Tigris to build the lakes for his hunting and fishing resort south of Baghdad, but he also used water from the Euphrates to irrigate the soccer fields and parade grounds at Al Asad. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water went to keep the grass green for Saddam and his thug-buddies to see a soccer match and walk on the nice grass. The people got what was left over. This is not a philosophy we Americans would buy into and after we're finished here, neither will the Iraqis ever again. A little thing we Michiganders take for granted, like water, may change the course of history in the Middle East!

When it rains, it washes the dust off of the tree leaves and releases the eucalyptus oil into the air. Camp Blue Diamond momentarily turns into a fragrant spot filled with fresh looking trees: mimosas, orange and lemon, iron wood and acacias. The birds fly across the street from tree to tree. There are crows and magpies, each very distinct. But then there are crow and magpie mixes. Birds with white bellies and black wings and with white wings and black bellies but groups of all three intermixed can be seen sitting on telephone wires and walls seemingly discussing the day's events. They seem to share the good times and bad with each other and squawk at each other from time to time but never actually get in a fight. After this fragrant rain, they seem to just be enjoying the clear skies and fresh smell of eucalyptus.

Perhaps something even more important to human beings than water is also happening here in Iraq. The time is quickly approaching when Iraqis can decide whether to go to the polls and vote for the first time in countless decades.

Many of the Iraqis I speak with every day bring voting up during our talks that are supposed to be about public works projects. Mustafa Ahmed is one such contractor who caught me off-guard when he asked me, "Mr. Ron, how did you vote in your last election when you were in Iraq and the voting booths are in America?" I told him that I went to my township and got an absentee ballot and voted before I left home. "How you know they count your vote, Mr. Ron?" I told Mustafa that I didn't know for absolute sure that my vote was counted, but that I trust the system in my hometown and that I feel certain that my voted counted.

"I'm not so sure about voting in Iraq, Mr. Ron. Maybe, how you say 'absentee' voting would be the way to do it here. Many people may die trying to vote here, Mr. Ron. Maybe it would be better for me to go to Paris or Rome and vote from there, it would be safer for me," he said chuckling.

I agreed it might be safer and then asked Mustafa if he planned to vote any way. "Mr. Ron, I have lived many years in Iraq. I can remember before there was a Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I have never been free to vote here, Mr. Ron. Iraqis don't know about voting. If I don't get killed going to vote or at the voting place, my vote may not even count anyway. So what have we gained? But I will tell you something, Mr. Ron; they will have to kill me to keep me from voting. And many of my tribesmen feel the same. We have suffered too much and been denied too long to not go this last step. Mr. Ron, it may be just a trickle at first, but when Iraqis see the results of their votes it will be like a flood over all Iraq. Iraqi people, Mr. Ron, want to be free more than anything else."

Posted by Deb at January 23, 2005 04:36 PM

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