Seven current and former state lawmakers, all women, landed in Baghdad earlier this month to report for duty as monitors for the first elections held by the new Iraqi government, rather than the U.S.-led coalition. Moments after climbing off their Huey helicopter, gunfire rang out.
The lawmakers dismissed it at first. It was a long way off and they weren't fazed. Bette Grande from North Dakota, who had taken off her helmet and flak jacket, has gone shooting at National Guard firing ranges. Susana Mendoza from Illinois knew the sound of gunfire from the streets of Chicago, and she assumed the shots came from Americans practicing on the base.
But then the gunfire grew a lot louder. Soldiers hurried the lawmakers into a bunker. Helicopters took off to search for the attackers. The legislators took cover for more than an hour before they could go to the nearby U.S. Embassy, where they were staying during the trip.
The violent outbreak didn't measure up to much by Baghdad standards, and it was the American legislators' closest brush with danger. But the lawmakers say it reminded them of the many other perils Iraqis braved as they went to the polls.
"To actually be standing with the Iraqi people when they were going to vote, in the midst of bombs and gunshots and IEDs going off and mortars hitting polling places," Mendoza says, "to think that you're a part of watching these people completely defy the terrorists and try to make Iraq their own, was really a humbling experience."
The National Foundation of Women Legislators assembled the group at the request of the U.S. State Department. In a country with many well-educated women and a million widows, Iraqi law requires that a quarter of candidates on the ballot be women.
The lawmakers started in Jordan and then moved to Iraq. They spent most of their time in training to know what to expect in the Iraqi polling places and how to detect fraud.
On Election Day (March 7), they woke up to the sounds of bombs exploding in the distance. The team visited a handful of the country's 50,000 election sites. They started inside the U.S.-controlled "Green Zone" but later in the day, they went to other parts of the city.
The legislators say they didn't see any signs of fraud in the polling places they visited. In fact, their interaction with voters was largely positive. Mendoza recalls how a man named Ahmed brought his entire family — his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 4 — along with him to vote, even after news reports claimed that, already that day, 23 Iraqis had been killed. The younger daughter wore a pink dress, silver shoes and pigtails, and the older daughter was dressed up too.
The man told the legislators that for the last two days, all his daughters saw on TV was footage of the last election showing Iraqis with purple fingers and people dancing in the streets. He said the girls wanted to be part of that. "He knew that people would die that day trying to vote," Mendoza recalls. "He and his family considered it a tax on freedom that they were willing to pay for with their lives."
While out in the city, Grande says she was struck by how little U.S. military presence she saw. Before she left, she knew troops were being pulled from Baghdad. Grande, who serves on North Dakota House's veteran affairs committee, knew her own state's National Guard is serving in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Still, she says, the absence of American soldiers in Baghdad was striking.
After the election, the group attended a dinner with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On Friday (March 26), the Iraqi election commission announced Maliki narrowly lost his bid for another term.
The seven women included five current state representatives — Mendoza, Grande, Debbie Riddle of Texas, Maria Chappelle-Nadal of Missouri and Helene Keeley of Delaware — and two former lawmakers — Gayle Harrell of Florida and Diane Winston of Louisiana.
Mendoza says the experience reenergized her as a legislator, even as Illinois confronts "a horrible situation financially and morally." As bad as Illinoisans have it, Iraqis have it way worse, she says. "If they can feel that their country's going to get better and their individual province or city can be better, then there's nothing we can't do in Illinois or in this country."
For Grande, the time in Iraq reinforced her commitment to military families. "I can't do enough now," she says. "Wow. The Iraqi people have an appreciation for that freedom, for what our soldiers gave them. We should show that appreciation for our soldiers, too."