The stars shone bright as Christmas lights in the perfectly clear sky. One of the few benefits of intermittent power in southern Iraq was that the night sky remained unpolluted, revealing the beauty of the stars in the hushed quiet of the Arabian desert. Men dressed in their finest robes and headdresses had gathered under a very long Bedouin tent of woven camel hair, their faces illuminated by the flickering fires that burned in the center of the tent. Virtually all of the major tribal leaders and representatives of the “political” parties were there. On this night, I sat in a place of honor where the two long rows converged and I could see all present. Dressed in the digital camouflage of the Army Combat Uniform, I was clearly an outsider, but after a year’s worth of meetings I was no longer a stranger.
Across from me sat a young man with a long black beard. I knew he belonged to the Office of Moqtada Sadr, a sworn enemy of coalition forces. I wondered why the Sheik had chosen to invite me on this night, and, even more, why he had a militia member in a place of honor. The man seated next to me introduced himself in perfect English and said he represented Hezbollah of Iraq, not exactly a friendly organization for western forces. After brief pleasantries and introductions he then offered the most interesting proposal of my 16 months there: Hezbollah and the Office of Moqtada Sadr wanted to partner with US led coalition forces and build an orphanage in Nassariyah. Virtually the entire tribal and political leadership of the province had gathered to see how I would respond to this proposal. Unbeknownst to me this proposition was the purpose of the gathering.
The tent fell silent as all looked on to see my response to the proposition. Although I do not usually smoke, a proposal from sworn enemies in front of scores of onlookers seemed like the right time to light one up and take a drag. As I inhaled deeply my mind raced. I needed to respond in just a few seconds. I was worried about committing to an action that I had no authority to execute, and signing up coalition forces to what could easily become a trap or a public affairs nightmare. However, I did not want to miss the opportunity to engage in a non-violent manner with organizations we often fought. I hoped that through engagement we could increase mutual understanding, decrease violence, and increase cooperation.
After a few seconds I leaned forward and responded with complete honesty. I told the group that I did not have the authority to commit coalition forces and that even if I did we could only work through the government of Iraq. If they wanted to partner on an orphanage, the request would have to come from the Iraqi provincial government. I added that I welcomed the request as an opportunity to increase understanding, cooperation, and employment and meet a humanitarian need. But I voiced my concern that this project could easily become an ambush for coalition forces as the proposed site was deep inside the crowded city. I stated that coalition forces will not fight their way into the city in order to work on a orphanage, especially since the most likely attackers would be coming from one of the tribes or political parties present that evening.
There was much discussion and debate up and down the lines of men. After what seemed like an eternity, the Sheik of the head of the Counsel of Tribes raised his hands and the crowd hushed. In a loud voice, he assured that the coalition forces working on the orphanage would be perfectly safe as long as they were accompanied by the Iraqi security forces. He added that he would talk to the provincial governor, and that the request would come from the Iraqi government to coalition forces as I requested. Furthermore, as long as coalition forces agreed to hire local labor to complete the work, all present would do their best to see that there were no hostile actions against coalition forces originating from their tribal areas or the city. I agreed that this was a great start to our negotiations, and the Sheik declared it was finally time for the feast.
Platter after platter of roasted lamb was brought out, as were trays of fruits and fragrant soups. Flatbread served as our plates and fingers as our utensils. The host ensured that we ate until we could hardly eat another bite and threatened that all were insulting his hospitality if we did not eat more. Thick black Turkish coffee and more cigarettes followed the meal. I was intrigued by the opportunity to work with our adversaries. If this project worked, there would be great benefit to all involved: greater safety for American soldiers and Iraqis alike, not to mention compassion for the Iraqi children affected by the war.
As promised, the request for assistance came from the Iraqi Provincial Government. The US Commander approved the project and the Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team volunteered to lead the project. Planning meetings were held, designs constructed and approved, and a local contractor selected. Just weeks after the dinner proposal construction started, and, as promised, violence against coalition and Iraqi security forces decreased. Employment achieved what military power could not.
The orphanage in Nassariyah did not change the tide of the war in Iraq, but it did achieve a very positive effect on the city and coalition forces at that place and at that time. By finding common ground, in this case the welfare of orphaned children, visionary leaders from strongly opposed organizations were able to work together and achieve a greater good. The respite from violence allowed law to gain the upper hand, businesses to reopen and grow, and the circle of prosperity to finally move forward.
To this day, the opportunity to help bring together the Iraqi Government, Islamic parties, and coalition forces to work for a noble of cause is one of my proudest moments. The fact that it succeeded and is still operating today is a small miracle. I will forever remember walking hand-in-hand with my former adversary down a narrow street of Nassariyah and asking him—now my new friend—if it was safe to be walking there. He replied: “We have accomplished something together no one thought possible. Although there will be trouble in the future, God willing we have started down a path of cooperation instead of conflict from which we will not turn back. You are my guest and my brother.”
Jake Kulzer is the Director of Strategic Communication for the Minnesota National Guard where he holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He is a graduate of Hamline University, holds a MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, and a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the US Army War College. He and his wife Wendy live in Stillwater with their three daughters.
This story was originally published at BePollen.com.