Governor al-Basso calls the meeting to order by expressing his condolences for the 17 soldiers who died in a helicopter crash over the weekend. General Petraeus, who has been to 53 council meetings this year, responds that he now has "17 additional reasons to work harder to bring freedom to the Iraqi people." The general seems determined to remain optimistic: "I feel we are on an upswing after being on a plateau." Petraeus strikes me as gracious and warm even in tense times. He reminds me of Fred Rogers -- except that his neighborhood is very different.
Democracy is obedient, at least in this little room in the middle of Mosul. There is no discussion, no debate. The single resolution put forth for a vote is one proposed by General Petraeus. He asks if the council will agree to expel the Communist Party for squatting in some public building. Everyone agrees.
In truth, there is only one tense moment in the nearly three hours we sat in the meeting. A turbaned sheikh sitting at the tail end of the U-shaped table asks to be heard. He tells the general that several of his constituents, particularly some imams, have complained about how the mosques are being searched by the police. "The New Iraqi forces should be more polite when they inspect our mosques," the sheikh says emphatically.
General Petraeus does not show a soft side. He sternly rebukes the sheikh, telling him plainly, "We will discuss this with the civil defense forces, but the mosques need to be reminded that they cannot hide weapons. They may lose their immunity under international law. We want to respect mosques, but the mosques cannot break the law. Our soldiers will continue to search every mosque. Tell your friends they can count on that." He softens the tone by using the word "moomtas," which means "great" in Arabic.
The scolding might have turned into a substantive discussion if it weren't for the arrival of Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi, a well-connected former exile and an influential member of the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad, is in town for the day and has come chaperoned with a delegation of 68 cars full of bodyguards and advisors. I am told by a translator that the council is eager to meet him, for "he is the man responsible for bringing the Americans."
Chalabi walks into the room dressed in a flashy blue sport jacket and yellow tie. Four bodyguards park themselves at each corner of the room and hold their AK-47s tightly. I don't know Chalabi well, but we have spent time with him in the past, interviewing him and following him to several press conferences. He seems tired, but his self-confidence and arrogance have not worn off. He shakes a lot of hands and proceeds to give a lengthy speech, which I'm sure I have heard before: "I am grateful to my American friends who came to liberate Iraq from Saddam's regime.... We are now liberated from Saddam, from the Baath Party. Liberated from the past...." He drones on and on.
When Chalabi ends his speech, Governor al-Basso begins one of his own. It, too, goes on and on. It's a wonder anything ever gets passed at city hall. Martin, Scott, and I start to fidget in our seats. Martin passes me a note asking if I will weave my way past the chairs and take the microphone off General Petraeus's chest so we can liberate ourselves from the tedious speechmaking. I hesitate. But then I realize this meeting could take hours, so I make my way to the general.
"I think I understand how it works, " I tell General Petraeus as I slip the microphone off his uniform. "Whoever speaks the longest wins." The general winks at me in agreement. Later he tells us, "That's Democracy 101."