Retired Professor’s Year in Iraq, Sheds new light on Unpopular War


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.

The struggles of a Kurdish family


New beginnings are what many individuals crave throughout life. But only those who have seen true beginnings can tell you how beautiful they are.

Nermin Darwish began a completely new chapter in her life after overcoming many years of cruelty when she moved to the United States from Syria in 2001.

Nermin is from North Iraq, which makes her a Kurd. She was born in 1961 and got married at the age of 19 to her husband, Jassem Darwish, in 1988. She and her husband began their life together with many goals of creating a family and future for themselves.

But shortly after, their dreams were disrupted when their world was turned upside down.

The Kurds are a group of people who live in the Northern part of Iraq; they are not Arabs, but Muslims. The Kurdish people of Iraq faced a genocide by Saddam Hussein, who was president of Iraq in the early 1990s. For years, the Kurds were brutally murdered and thousands were buried alive. There were also many villages that were struck by nuclear weapons at one point.

The pain inflicted on the Kurds by Saddam can only be seen in Nermin’s eyes when she describes how her 21-year-old brother was hung and other countless family members were killed in the middle of the night while sleeping.

“There was no obvious reason as to why we were so hated and dehumanized for being Kurds. I just wish I knew how they could peacefully sleep at night knowing what they were doing was beyond wrong,” Nermin said in Kurdish.

After years of torture, the Kurds decided to fight back in an attempt to stand up for themselves.

Nermin’s husband and many other men created a secret society where they formed an army to protect the many innocent Kurds killed every day. “It didn’t matter to them who they were killing; they killed the children, women, elderly and men,” Nermin said.

While the Kurdish army’s efforts somewhat derailed Saddam’s plan to wipe out the Kurds, there were consequences for those who were captured fighting against the government. The men who were captured were tortured for information and then hung, just like Nermin’s brother.

A group of men who had been working with Jassem were captured. They subsequently released information about the other men involved in the resistance efforts.

“Most of the men knew that releasing information would not save your life when you’re captured, but apparently some who were weaker believed there would be some hope for them,” Jassem said in his native language, Kurdish.

When Jassem was informed that he was a target, he quickly picked up and fled. “It was very important to me to fight for my people’s rights and freedom. But there was a more important duty I had to fill, which was being a husband and father, so I fled to keep myself alive,” Jassem said.

Nermin, Jassem, and their 4-month-old daughter fled to the neighboring nation of Syria. The family was safe there, but starting over in a new place without knowing anyone or where to go was very challenging. After a while, friends were made and shelter was built, but there was still the day-to-day struggle of how to create an income to survive.

When there were no options left, Nermin and her husband decided to go live in a UN refugee camp where they would at least have food to eat. The family lived in a tent that had no water or electricity. “I woke up every morning knowing this was not the life I imagined for myself …,” Nermin said.

There were 9,000 families who were refugees at the camp, many just like Nermin and her family, so there was a first come, first served policy regarding emigration that was established. The families who were at the camp the longest were chosen first and the others were left waiting for their turn.

From left: Nermin Darwish, Ridor Darwish, Fatima Darwish at Ridor's high school graduation.

Nermin’s family waited a very long time in Syria before they were chosen to come to the US. On Sept. 1, 2000, Nermin, her husband and their three children arrived in the United States.

The family started their life all over again in Salt Lake City. With no one to go to for help or any income, the second time wasn’t any easier. Every day was a challenge, especially with a language barrier present. The first year was the most difficult, but after learning English, finding minimum-wage jobs and creating a home, life became easier.

Nermin and her family faced many obstacles in their long road toward reaching freedom and happiness. But the family doesn’t regret a single moment of their long journey. Nermin believes the most difficult roads lead to the most beautiful destinations in life.