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Forum focuses on rebuilding Iraq

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By Jennifer Garcia

It’s not every day that a U.S. citizen can add something as prestigious as helping to rebuild a war-torn country to their resume. However, urban planner Julia Demichelis and County Council Vice Chair Mike Wismer did do just that.

Both Demichelis and Wismer hosted a forum Wednesday night at Mesa Public Library, at which League of Women Voter members and members of the general public were present.

Demichelis has been a member of the LWV for the past six years.

Before the forum began, LWV Vice President Rebecca Shankland spoke briefly of Demichelis’ experience as an urban planner and her international efforts. “She’s been to 32 different countries,” Shankland said of Demichelis, “her task is to help them make peace. She also helped the Iraqis write their constitution,” he continued.

Demichelis spent a year in Iraq in 2005, helping the Iraqis draft their constitution and establish a parliament, while Wismer spent three months there working in a human resources capacity.

“Julia gathered people from all over the U.S. who had experience in constitution writing, etc. and put them in the green zone,” Wismer said. “The Iraqis were of the mindset that it was time for a new era. It was a tough challenge in a tough working environment. I had the privilege to serve with her for a couple of months,” he continued.

Wismer also said the Iraqi government wouldn’t have been able to set up their provincial governments if they didn’t have the parliamentary government that Demichelis helped establish.

Both Demichelis and Wismer talked about their experience in Iraq, as well as their living conditions. Demichelis lived in a hotel in the red zone, while Wismer lived in a trailer compound in the green zone.

Wismer said that the U.S. military had used the trailers originally, but they were later rented to defense contractors.

“We were not allowed out of the green zone,” Wismer said. He told the audience that a mercenary convoy had to accompany him and others when they had to go outside of the green zone.

He also said that when they needed to go to work locations, they had to wear a helmet and flak vest, though the temperatures often reached 120 degrees. In addition, they had to be escorted by armed guards.

During the talk, one audience member asked Wismer, “Why were the mercenaries Aussies?”

Wismer said that there was a bidding process, through which guards were selected. “They had to be on-call for us all the time,” he said.

He also talked about how Apache helicopters could constantly be heard taking off and landing around the compound. In addition, the sound of rockets being launched and mortars going off was also commonplace.

Demichelis talked about her experience living in the hotel for a year.

“My life was going from one floor to another,” she said. She was not allowed to leave the hotel, however, she was allowed to go on the rooftop.

Wismer also talked about his work in Iraq and said that the idea behind him going there was not to just go in as a management consultant.

“My job was to sit down and interview over 150 Iraqis and find out what would work for their parliament,” he said. Sitting down with each person took him about two hours and during that time, he said he got a flavor for the Iraqi culture.

Demichelis said they her team started with a group of highly motivated, curious, energetic and high-risk taking Iraqis who were able to absorb parliamentary development.

“The recent elections were very positive. The 2009 elections were a stark contrast to what I saw the last time,” she said.

Demichelis said that following the draft of the new Iraqi constitution marked the first time that the judicial and executive branches of government had been separated in Iraq. She also mentioned that during the elections, pro-U.S. parties and leaders didn’t win many seats; neither did the Kurds.

“The Nationalists have moved back toward redeveloping an Iraqi image and identity,” Demichelis said. She also said that Iraqi government officials are looking toward Europe and other countries as a model for government structure.

One audience member asked Demichelis why Iraqi leaders chose a parliamentary government as their foundation.

Demichelis was reluctant to answer the question and after a long pause said, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that.”

Demichelis also talked about the long hours that she and her team put in as part of their work in drafting the Iraqi constitution.

“The constitution was drafted in Arabic,” she said. “My team was in a hotel and all day and night, they translated (the constitution) from Arabic to American.”

Wismer said that the language barrier proved to be a challenge sometimes, even though they had interpreters.

“You have to learn to speak in concepts when you have an interpreter. I went through a couple of interpreters until I finally found a dentist who taught me how to speak in concepts,” he said.

During the forum, Shankland asked Demichelis how the Iraqi leaders were chosen. “Political leaders were chosen by the Iraqis,” Demichelis commented. “It would seem that the Iraqis would appreciate us rebuilding some of the things we knocked down,” one audience member commented.

“My job as an urban planner has been to rebuild infrastructure and utilities. Some of this work is going on, but not nearly enough because of the ex-patriots,” Demichelis said.

At the conclusion of the form, another audience member asked Demichelis what the population of Iraq was before the war began and how many people were displaced.

“Most people didn’t leave with resources, but rather fled,” Demichelis said. “The population was around 30 million and 3 million have been displaced since 2006.”

Demichelis also mentioned that there needs to be more balanced information being relayed to the public by the media, where the Iraqi rebuilding is concerned.

“Every time there’s good news coming out of Iraq, someone gets killed,” she said.