The Last Word in Laid-Back Summits

The sheik support center

As far as regional summits go, the one this morning at the month-old sheik support center in Taji, about 15 miles north of Baghdad, was pretty casual. The idea behind its opening--in theory, at least—was to provide a neutral place where Sunni and Shia sheiks can come to discuss local governance issues. But the two-story building itself looked more like an abandoned residence (which it likely is), and it was filled not with Iraqis heatedly debating the region's economic development, but with U.S. soldiers keen to take a break from the outdoor heat and find a cool place to ditch their Kevlar vests. As I toured the building with a group of journalists, more than one joked that he wanted to see where the sheiks kept their ping-pong table.

After being herded into a tent in the front garden, the event started out with speeches from Sheik Nadeem Sultan, who founded the center, and Tahan Nehma, a representative from the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The audience seated in rows of plastic chairs talked through the addresses, with Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl joking that the center had been a disco called "Sheik Your Booty" in the 70s. Few noticed when the sound system cut out every now and again. And a man wove through the rows serving Iraqi coffee, meant to be downed from a small ceramic cup in one swig--not an especially pleasant experience given the hot weather.

I kept wondering when this "summit" was going to start (had the press missed it?) but Sgt Nathan Ritzo, a military journalist covering the event, assured me that key figures would be peeling off to discuss critical issues privately over food when the speeches were finished. "That's just they way they do things here," he said with a shrug.

The lamb and fat served over rice that everyone was fisting into their mouths for lunch didn't really appeal, so I talked with some of the local leaders who all seemed pleased at the relative calm their communities are experiencing. Sheik Nadeem credits locals with ridding their communities of both Al Qaeda and the Mahdi army. He considers this is a very important time for the region because it is finally experiencing enough security to start focusing on delivering utilities like water and electricity to its population. The problem is Taji doesn't have enough funding from the government to be able to provide access to such services, despite repeated requests. Says
Nadeem: "We keep telling the government to come see what we are doing with their own eyes."

Brian Conklin, a foreign service officer with USAID embedded with the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, agrees that the Iraqi government is way behind in meeting the needs of Taji's population. During his work to facilitate returnees to the area, he says he had made several trips to Baghdad asking for more support and funding. USAID, he says, remains ahead of the curve in terms of filling gaps in humanitarian service and supply. "They don't have a clue what's going on out here," says Conklin of the Iraqi government. And it should care about having a clue; Iraqis willing to return home is a group the government should want to invest in.

Radhi Muhsin, the city chairman of Saba al-Boor, a neighborhood on the northern fringe of Baghdad, says there are 16 projects in his area that need funding, that the Iraqi government has promised to put more money towards in the coming months. The problem, he says, is that process to get funding moves very slowly, so slowly in fact that by the time approval is granted, the cost of the project has risen significantly, causing further delays. Today, only one of Maliki's representatives bothered to turn up, which might or might not indicate that the province's pending projects will continue to be ignored. If nothing else, it does seem further evidence of the central government's lack of control of—and interest in-- life outside of Baghdad. But given that no one from the Iraqi government came to the last event, maybe this is at very least a step in the right direction.