Story by ELLEN LEWIS
Post 9-11, Americans perceived the war in Iraq as generally unsuccessful, and left our nation with a negative opinion about our country’s role in Iraq, but what if we had been there? Would our opinion change if we really understood?
Dr. James Mayfield is a retired political science professor at the University of Utah and author of “The Enigma of Iraq”. He specializes in local government systems, specifically in Muslim countries, and has spent the last 30 years focusing on training mayors, bureaucrats and other local government officials for better local government planning across the Middle East. Because of his expertise he was selected by the Bush Administration to spend a year in Iraq.
Dr. Mayfield arrived two weeks after the war ended, in May of 2003, his task: to prepare a country in shambles for their first democratic elections after the treacherous regime of Saddam Hussein.
Contrary to the violent, chaotic images Americans were exposed to over and over again in the press, Dr. Mayfield’s headquarters were in a peaceful, picturesque village called Hillah. The site of the ancient city of Babylon, Hillah is located on the bank of the Euphrates River in the South Central region of Iraq.
“I traveled all over Iraq in the countryside, never was shot at, never saw any violence…(the Iraqis) were so happy we were there,” Dr. Mayfield explained, out of the 1500 districts in the whole country, 95 percent of the violence was occurring in less than 10 percent of these districts, mainly in Baghdad.
Of the 14 providences in Iraq, Dr. Mayfield was in charge of five and immediately he set to work to train Iraqi staff and establish a functioning local government. He had a staff of 40 Americans and about 150 Iraqis, all of whom had advanced degrees and half spoke English well.
Once Dr. Mayfield and his staff had divided their providences into voting districts and elected counsels, who then selected members of state parliament—his next focus was to help local bureaucrats make decisions. They were accustomed to being told what to do, so it was an entirely a new way of thinking Dr. Mayfield said, “That was really a big challenge, they were waiting for Baghdad to tell them what to do.”
The top leaders of Hussein’s regime were let go, but the U.S. government hired many officials who had previously worked under Saddam, they spoke English well and were very competent. The fact that they could communicate was a huge factor; Dr. Mayfield was “saddened by the Americans in Baghdad, where 95 percent of them didn’t speak Arabic,” he gained the trust of many Iraqi’s because he could speak Iraqi-Arabic well, and he understood the Muslim culture.
The third and most challenging task for Dr. Mayfield: Developing and implementing a budget, “this is where we got into trouble because the American leaders in Baghdad felt like the decisions should be made in Baghdad. Terrible mistake,” Dr. Mayfield said.
An official budget was introduced on July 7, 2003 of which 65 percent was designated for Baghdad and only 35 percent to the providences. Dr. Mayfield remarked, that only 22 percent of the population lives in Baghdad and the remaining 78 percent live in the outside providences. By Aug. 7,Dr. Mayfield’s providences hadn’t received any of the funds, and even by the first of September only 10 percent of the designated 35 percent was dispersed.
“That budget problem in my opinion was one of the reasons for the back lash against Americans,” said Dr. Mayfield, the people appreciated that the Americans were there, but the problem was they were relying on the local government. Many of the local ministries still held ties to Saddam, and the Sunni were taking over again because they were whom the Americans were using.
Dr. Mayfield explained the different types of Muslims within Iraq, crucial to understanding the Iraqi people and their attitude towards Americans, as well as our attitudes towards Muslims and the Middle East in general. Like Christians there are different types of Muslims, each distinct.
Of the 25 million Iraqis, 65 percent are Shia Muslims, although they make up the majority of the country, the Sunni Muslims have traditionally had all control, even though they are a mere 15 percent of the population. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, only gave positions of power to other Sunnis during his Regime. He persecuted the Shia, as well as the Curds, another Muslim culture in the North that make up the last 15 percent of the population.
The Shia were “ecstatic” when the Americans came, according to Dr. Mayfield they couldn’t wait to destroy the regime and have a new sense of freedom. “What most Americans don’t realize is that the people who were killing Americans were not Shia.” Dr. Mayfield said, “Most of the killing came from the Sunnis.”
The misconception in the states that the whole country of Iraq was anti-American was due to the Sunni extremists, mostly pro Saddam Hussein, who really wanted the American effort to fail so they could take over again.
As Americans, we don’t understand the difference between the Sunni and Shia, because of this we assumed that the Iraqi’s were against the proposed constitution because the Americans imposed it. This wasn’t the case.
Dr. Mayfield explained that many Americans don’t realize that although the majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, the rest of the Muslim countries are Sunni. In fact the only other country that has Shia as a majority is Iran. As a result many foreign Sunni extremist were coming across the border killing Shia Muslims and threatening them not to vote for the constitution, in fear they would lose power to the Americans.
Two years later and the constitution passed in 2005. Although Dr. Mayfield was not there at the time he explained, with a glow of pride, that 97 percent of the people in his town voted in favor of the constitution. Not only that, but of the expected 10 percent turnout: 83 percent of the Curds voted in favor, 70 percent of the Shia, and even 40 percent of the Sunni—all in favor of the constitution.
Today Dr. Mayfield has “ great hope for Iraq,” it has the second largest oil field next to Saudi Arabia, and the rich agriculture which it lacks. At 76, he is still active in his NGO, Choice Humanitarian. The organization he started 30 years ago, aims to train village leaders how to recognize and identify need, then learn how to network and leverage in order to fulfill those needs.
Dr. Mayfield offers a perspective on the situation in Iraq, which the majority of Americans are blind to, his compassion for the Iraqis and Muslim culture brings new light to the importance of understanding a culture and its people before making stereotypes and generalizations.