Rebirth of a nation
New Richmond man aids Iraqi political party development
Steve Edwards spent his summer vacation teaching Iraqis a new language -- the language of democracy.
Edwards was in the war-torn country June 10-23 as part of the International Republican Institute's effort to create a stronger democratic society in the former dictatorship.
It's pretty heady stuff for the New Richmond resident who spends his normal work week as governmental affairs manager for 3M in St. Paul.
"It's some of the most rewarding stuff I've ever done," Edwards said upon his return from Iraq. "It's something I'm real passionate about. I was honored to be there."
While in Iraq, Edwards offered one-day seminars to several of the country's emerging political parties. By the end of his stint, Edwards had conducted sessions with nine of those groups.
The International Republican Institute's goal is to help the parties organize themselves, prepare for upcoming elections and develop a healthy multi-party system.
"This is a very basic, initial program," Edwards said. "We go over the purpose of a political party. We teach them things like the importance of having diversity in their party, that people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds can belong to the same party.
"We tell them you can't be nervous about the mystery of what other people think. You have to bring them into your party."
Edwards admitted many of the concepts are foreign to Iraqi leaders. They are used to parties dominated by a specific religions or ethnic backgrounds, and other parties that exclude women.
"We show them that diversity in their party means strength," he said. "We challenge them to think about what they're doing and where they're at in the political party process."
Edwards agreed that not every suggestion is going to work in Iraq because of cultural differences, but many ideas would help the country develop.
"The people in Iraq get to choose what works best for them," he said. "We don't have it perfect here ... we have problems in our own elections.
"But political parties give people a voice and help them determine their own government."
The trainers simply want Iraqis to understand what has worked in other countries, and learn from the mistakes of others, Edwards said.
"These are some concepts we want them to think about," he said. "The key unifying force in a party is people's values, beliefs and ideas."
Edwards said the country is gearing up for an October referendum election to possibly ratify the nation's new constitution. If voters approve the measure, new democratic elections will soon follow.
Even if the democratic system begins to take hold, Edwards admitted the process of creating a stable Iraq could take years or even decades to accomplish.
"It's a long cycle," he said.
He noted that it took America 10 years to adopt a constitution following the end of the Revolutionary War.
Even though America's involvement in Iraq is not likely to end any time soon, Edwards said he's convinced the job they're doing is the right thing to do.
He said he met several people who were imprisoned and tortured at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime, and they all appreciate what the Americans are doing.
"They come up to you and grab your hands and touch your face," he recalled. "They say thank you and it's hard for them to put it in words. Just the look in their eyes is a pretty amazing thing."
One man who talked with Edwards showed him the tips of his fingers, which contained no fingernails. While tortured in jail, the man's fingernails were pulled out.
He also talked with professors, who were thrilled that they could teach subjects that didn't have to be approved by the authorities. Shop owners were happy to sell products of their choice, and journalists were excited to be writing stories of their choosing.
"I have great faith in what's happening will succeed," he said. "The people I talked to don't want to give their freedoms up again, and they will fight for those rights."
Edwards said insurgents and terrorists are trying their best to obstruct the march toward democracy, and that makes progress slow.
"They have no suggestions of how they would run Iraq, or how they would make people's lives better," Edwards said. "All they're trying to do is kill people. All they're trying to do is intimidate, terrorize and gain control."
As an example, Edwards said he heard stories of terrorist groups and their growing difficulty in finding suicide bombers today. Apparently the groups now kidnap entire families, forcing the father to drive a car loaded with explosives or face having his family murdered.
He said several "suicide" bombers have been found with their hands duct taped to the steering wheel or taped to the seat of the car.
In the end, fear and bullying will lose the fight, Edwards said, but it will take patience and continued bravery to see the rebirth of a nation completed.
"It's a tough job and it's going to take a long time," he said.
Edwards personally experienced more than a few hair-raising moments during his time in Iraq. He wore body armor when traveling throughout Baghdad.
During one training session, a suicide bomber dressed as a policeman blew himself up, killing four others. The blast was so strong Edwards could feel it in his chest.
"We kept on going," Edwards wrote in an email.
"Baghdad is not a secure place," he admitted Monday. "Traveling from the airport to downtown is a risky thing, as we see on the news every day."
Called "Road Irish" for the luck involved in making it to your destination, the 10-mile stretch is known as the world's most dangerous road.
"But I have faith that things will get better," he said with optimism. It's that optimism that prompted him to volunteer for the trip in the first place.
Edwards said he hopes to continue communicating with political party leaders in Iraq as the system evolves. He also hopes to return to the country in the future to help in whatever ways he can.
The recent trip to Iraq is not the first time Edwards has volunteered his expertise on establishing a new political system in a developing country.
Most recently, Edwards provided training in Sudan and Liberia, after civil wars and unrest tore those countries apart. He also assisted several former Soviet bloc countries with the birth of their political system a decade ago.
Edwards said his job as a consultant is easy, because he flies in and leaves a few days later. He has great respect for those in the armed services, who are deployed for months on end in defense of freedom.
"This is when America is at its best," he said. "To see men and women sacrifice their daily lives and time away from their families, to risk their lives to help other people who they don't even know, is a pretty remarkable thing."