TUZ, Iraq -Iraqis living in the Salah ad-Din Province are already pushing aside talk of elections, democracy, and the planned constitution to focus on ending the violence and securing basic-but so far unreliable-necessities like electricity and water.
Officials last week certified the Shiite coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, as the election winner with 48.2 percent of the 8.5 million votes cast in Jan. 30 balloting. That gives the coalition 140 out of 275 seats, less than its hoped-for majority. Kurds came in second, securing 70 seats in a National Assembly. Current Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's candidate slate received only 38 seats.
Here in the Sunni Triangle, where voter turnout was lower and fear of violence runs high, election results and constitutional law are far from the minds of city officials like Abbas Salman Hassan, the mayor of Umarliyah. His town is suffering from immediate shortages. They are enumerated in crude English translation on a paper handed to a U.S. soldier by one resident:
"These are some notes about Amerily:
1. No water about three weeks.
2. No electric about 10 days."
Dozens of men, some in Western suits, others in traditional Arabic robes, followed U.S. Army Capt. Dan Smith into the city hall building last week to complain to town fathers-and to the Americans-about how cold and dirty their families are without electricity and water.
The collapse of two electricity towers due to erosion from recent heavy rains is the root of the latest power outages. But thieves compounded the problem: Out-of-work Iraqis stole pieces of the downed power lines to sell as scrap metal.
Area fuel shortages have undermined the city's back-up plan, which calls for gas generators. Without generators or power lines, the nearby water distribution plant-serving nearly 40,000 people in three cities-is idled. Frustrated by a vicious cycle extending now nearly two years since the U.S. invasion, officials like Mr. Hassan plead for help from local U.S. soldiers.
City council members in nearby Tuz turned to U.S. soldiers for other problems, raising complaints of abuse and threats against the local police. At the same time, they said the police are poorly trained and incapable of following proper procedures, like seeking warrants from a judge before making arrests.
At a town-hall-style meeting, three U.S. soldiers listened using interpreters. Council members often looked more at the Americans than one another while railing against the police. They asked for intervention, especially in a rash of kidnappings along area roads that are mostly blamed on urgent quests for cash.
The pleas made it clear that, despite leaping over their first election hurdle, many Iraqi leaders in this area are not ready to see the U.S. military leave. That runs counter to the popular perception that the province is a hotbed for anti-American schemes.
"If coalition forces leave there would be chaos" said Nasih Mussal Ali, a Kurdish council member. "One [U.S.] soldier is worth 50 IP (Iraqi police)."
Election turmoil is over, but the tension over lingering shortages and a crippled economy goes on, making it hard for many Iraqis here to see relevance in the poll results. While Iraq's new political leadership will be tasked to draft a constitution, many leaders are more eager to focus on job creation. Lt. Col. Safa Shakur, the commander of the 209th Iraqi Army Battalion at Tuz, wants to fill his ranks with men from the area in hopes that such opportunities would quell the insurgency.
U.S. military officers here believe that unemployed Iraqis supply the insurgents with manpower. Insurgent leaders are paying top dollar for those willing to set up the roadside bombs responsible for much of the death in Iraq. Setting up just one roadside bomb could feed someone's family here for a year, U.S. army officials said.
"They have a saying that translates into, 'You are not a man unless you take care of your family,'" said Lt. Col. Frank McCauley, who commands a squadron of Tennessee National Guard soldiers stationed at this base. "So if we can give them an alternative such as fixing roads they'd be less inclined, so we've been told, to participate in criminal enterprises."
Conversations among Iraqis at the 209th's headquarters seemed to suggest that average Iraqis would take money in their pockets over the purple mark they received on their finger Jan. 30. More than laws, more than politics, these new recruits just want to talk about jobs.
Average income in the province is about $170 a month. These soldiers take home $300-$400 a month based on rank. "Because we don't have any civilian job now, any young man staying at home takes the money to become a terrorist," said Sgt. 1st Class Fateh Rezgar, 26. "Bad guys just need a job."
Staff Sgt. Amer Simmen said he is confident Iraq can use its oil resources to get back on its feet as long as the new government doesn't stray down the same subversive path as the old regime. "We are a rich country. Just the government is a bad government," he said.
Sgt. Maj. Bill Kervin, of Knoxville, Tenn., the lone U.S. soldier among five Iraqis who lingered long after the meeting, borrowed on American economic trends to show the Iraqis they are not alone. "It's not just Iraqis. It is all over the world," he said, explaining that crime rates rise in the United States whenever jobs are scarce. "What ya'll need are some Wal-Marts and some McDonald's."
When the translator turned the sergeant-major's words into Arabic, the five Iraqi soldiers nodded their heads in approval.
-Edward Lee Pitts is military affairs correspondent for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, currently embedded with the Tennessee National Guard 278th Regimental Combat Team in Iraq