FORWARD OPERATING BASE BERNSTEIN, Iraq - Inside a hangar on an airfield once reserved for Saddam Hussein's military, soldiers from the United States and Iraq recently shared a meal and swapped hopes and fears regarding postelection Iraq.
Sitting around a table inside the 209th Iraqi Army Battalion's makeshift headquarters, the soldiers feasted on a spread of fresh fruit, yellow and white rice mixed with raisins, dates, cooked tomatoes, raw onions, legs of lamb, and beef kabobs-all decoratively arrayed upon metal platters. Words echoed inside the vast air hanger, its arching roof covered by coils of corrugated steel, protection against mortar attacks at a base now jointly housing U.S. and Iraqi forces.
With grins and laughs, the Iraqis talk about America's bombing of this base during the first Gulf War. Lt. Col. Mustafa Nsayf Hussan bragged and teased that it took his tank company only 12 hours to reach Kuwait City in Saddam's failed attempt to annex Kuwait.
Now Lt. Col. Mustafa, the operations officer for the 209th, says he is glad the former dictator of Iraq is in jail. "Saddam Hussein had one mind in his head. We couldn't change his mind," he said.
Like most Iraqi soldiers in training here, Lt. Col Mustafa said elections a month ago make him happy because they will ensure the freedoms for his family that he never enjoyed under Saddam. Iraqis are weary of fighting in war after war, he said: first the decade-long struggle against Iran, the first Persian Gulf War, subsequent fighting between Kurds and Arabs, and now, a two-year war pitting the United States and its Iraqi allies against Saddam's holdouts and terrorists. He is confident the overwhelming turnout and interest means things will finally change. "We are happy for the good life," he said through a translator. "We wanted something more. We wanted freedom."
Local city councils threaten violence over developing turf battles, and kidnappings continue in the area. "In Iraq we don't know the meaning of the word 'freedom,'" Lt. Col. Mustafa said. "This is new."
But if Iraqis rejoice at casting their vote, they are less certain about what the politicians will do with it. Lt. Col. Safa Shakur, commander of the 209th, said he is skeptical about the upcoming constitutional drafting process. Forming a democratic government with people so used to the rule of force over the rule of law will be difficult, he said.
"Politics is like a huge sea," he said. "It is too big and too deep. I tell the Iraqi people not to trust the ones writing the constitution. They are very materialistic and self-interested, the majority of them."
Lt. Col. Safa's only experience with the political process involved a bribe. Dismissed from the army because his uncle lived in Iran, Lt. Col. Safa said a cousin to Saddam charged him 2 million dinars to arrange a meeting with the dictator himself. Lt. Col. Safa begged Saddam to keep his job, knowing a jail sentence was the likeliest alternative.
The Iraqi soldiers believe the constitution will not work if it favors one group over another among the country's vast array of religious sects, ethnic groups, and political parties. "The constitution must have an Iraqi identity," said Lt. Col. Safa. "I don't know when we will liberate the residue from our minds of the old regime and liberate together into one Iraq."
But in fact that is what is happening, as Shiite Arab and Sunni Kurd leaders-who outpolled other factions in Jan. 30 elections-holed up to agree on a three-person presidency council to lead the new National Assembly. Just such a mix of Kurds and Arabs, as well as the different political and religious groups, the Iraqi soldiers believe, is the only way to provide the checks and balances needed to craft a workable constitution.
U.S. soldiers watching the discussion with after-dinner tea saw something familiar. "The Kurds are suspicious of the Arabs. The Arabs are suspicious of the Kurds," said Col. Dennis Adams of the U.S. 278th Regimental Combat Team. "They will watch each other like hawks." But, he added, "what do you think our politicians in America do?"