Just two weeks ago, Utahn James Mayfield was conducting a focus group in Basra, Iraq, trying to determine how people there felt about the U.S. plan to end the occupation of their country next year as an Iraqi government takes control.
However, the work being done by Mayfield a University of Utah emeritus professor recruited by the United States to introduce south-central Iraq to democracy was interrupted when news reached the Basra streets that Saddam Hussein, the ousted Iraqi president, had been captured by American troops near Tikrit in the north.
"Suddenly, we heard machine guns firing and explosions all around," Mayfield, home for a brief visit during the holidays, told the Deseret Morning News. "We thought, 'Good heavens, what is happening here?' We immediately stopped what we were doing and went outside."
In Basra, Mayfield "found people just dancing and streaming into the streets, and shouting with great joy. Everybody was thrilled."
That's the image of Iraq and its people Mayfield wishes more Americans shared.
Instead, he said, too many news stories from Iraq focus on the insurgents aligned with Saddam, even though they represent only a small portion of that country's population and most of their activities are confined to Baghdad or the former dictator's hometown of Tikrit.
"Everybody talks about rebellion in Iraq," Mayfield said, an assertion he finds frustrating. "There is not a rebellion in Iraq among 80 percent of the people."He said the media reports he's seen over the seven months he's already spent in Iraq on assignment for the U.S. Agency for International Development "do not in any way represent the interests and the desires of the vast majority of Iraqis."
A political scientist by training and an expert on local governments in the Mideast, Mayfield said the death of American troops at the hands of Iraqi insurgents is "a tragic cost we have to pay."
He said the situation is similar to the sacrifices made by American soldiers in World War II to defeat evil in Germany and Japan.
"For some reason, we don't seem to have that same resolve now. We're anxious to get out," Mayfield said. "We don't seem to have the national willpower to ensure that Iraqi people have the same kind of benefits that the German people, the Japanese people, now have."
But it will take at least three to five years to establish democracy in Iraq, he said, and troops may continue to be needed there even though the U.S. occupation of Iraq is set to end next year on June 30."We will maintain a military presence until there is a stable, constitutional system of government established in Iraq with a sort of a non-politicized military and strong local police force that can maintain order, peace and security," Mayfield said.
A crucial interval
Those next six months, he said, are going to be crucial for the U.S. effort.
"There are problems we have to deal with, including unemployment and shortages of fuel, and the sort of random violence that characterizes Iraqi life," at least in Baghdad, he said.
Americans should expect it will get worse for troops there before it gets better. Mayfield said there are 50,000 or more Iraqis "who benefited from the Saddam Hussein machine" who are trying to undermine the attempt to change the government.
For those Iraqis who didn't share the lavish lifestyle of Saddam's followers, Mayfield said it's a different story, especially among the Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq, who make up nearly two-thirds of the country's population.
"There is a deep hatred of (Saddam) and a deep frustration that we hadn't been able to capture him because . . . there was always that possibility that he might come back. With his capture came a tremendous sense of relief," he said.
Mayfield's assignment in Iraq will end with the transfer of power in mid-2004. Between now and then, he said, the 100 Iraqis and 50 Americans working for him will work to strengthen the media, establish civic education programs and educate schoolteachers.
"If we can in fact help Iraq to maintain a more free, a more open and a more pluralistic kind of society, this can be a model for other countries," he said. "Injustice and brutality and tyranny in Iraq can impact on us."
Saddam's capture won't affect the timeline for the transition, Mayfield said."It simply reflects a key turning point where the Iraqi people can now say, 'He's gone, his influence on our nation has been eliminated. Let's move forward.' "