O.C. city reaches out to Iraqis

Times Staff Writer

The suburban community of Laguna Niguel knew there would be obstacles to starting a sister city program with the Qaim district of Iraq.

Language and culture, of course. But bombed government buildings? And vigilante executions?

A proposal that began early this year with humanitarian shipments of soccer balls has turned into a revealing glimpse at the vast differences between life in Southern California and places like Qaim, a municipality of 230,000 near the Syrian border in Anbar province.

The sister city idea was proposed to Laguna Niguel leaders this summer by Lt. Col. Jason Bohm, commander of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment serving in Iraq.

But several weeks ago, the harsh reality of life in Iraq became more apparent when a wire service story reported that the Iraqi mayor of the region had authorized tribal sheiks to carry out summary executions of two men accused of killing a police officer.


The story said Bohm was present at a meeting when the mayor made the authorization.

In an e-mail exchange, Bohm disputed charges that the Iraqi mayor had authorized the killings, which he said took place before the meeting occurred.

He called it an isolated incident that had no bearing on the sister city program.

Laguna Niguel Councilman Mike Whipple, one of the program’s proponents, said the report was disturbing, but said he was not surprised that it would happen in Iraq.

“We’re dealing with a society and culture that has developed their own methods of resolving problems. That may take years to change,” he said. “But that should not stop us from talking to others and keeping communication open.”

The relationship between the two cities began this summer when Bohm arranged for Laguna Niguel residents to send 200 donated soccer balls to children in Qaim.

The equipment was so well received that there have been more shipments, as well as a proposal for a more lasting bond.

If the relationship is formalized, Laguna Niguel would become one of only a handful of cities in the nation with a sister city in Iraq.

As Laguna Niguel feels out the question of being a sister city, it has faced some puzzling security questions few communities have to deal with, chiefly: how to nurture a relationship with a civic partner in a war zone.

Mayor Pro Tem Paul Glaab said he would like to set up a teacher exchange program, but acknowledged that the “security issue may very well preclude a visit from citizens of Laguna Niguel there.”

Whipple said he would consider traveling to Syria or Jordan to meet with Qaim’s leaders outside Iraq, but would not travel to Iraq under current conditions.

Sister city programs often involve exchanging delegations of city officials and business leaders who learn from one another and forge business deals.

The idea for Laguna Niguel’s Iraqi sister city program grew out of the city’s military support committee, which has ceremonially adopted the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines based at Camp Pendleton and the McClusky, a Navy frigate that is based in San Diego.

Bohm conceived of forming a sister city relationship through regular meetings with leaders in Qaim, where combat missions have largely been overshadowed by efforts to promote economic development, civic involvement and infrastructure, he said in a phone interview.

It was at one of those meetings several weeks ago that Qaim Mayor Farhan Ftehkhan allegedly approved the summary executions of two men while Bohm made it clear that Americans did not condone such behavior.

The mayor “understands that tribal law has been part of the Islamic culture for centuries, that the rule of law is developing, but not fully functional across all of Iraq at this time, and that the community leaders took the course of action that they thought would lead to the least amount of violence in the area due to cultural nuances,” Bohm wrote in an e-mail.

Bohm has run into other setbacks that are unusual for this type of cultural exchange, as when he wrote in an e-mail to Laguna Niguel officials to report that one of Qaim’s municipal buildings was hit by a car bomb.

The car bomb “did severe damage to the building and unfortunately killed some Iraqis, but these people are persistent and will not let this hold them back,” he wrote.

Only seven U.S. cities have sister relationships with Iraqi counterparts, according to the Sister Cities International, which oversees more than 2,500 sister city programs worldwide. Five began in 2004 and led to Iraqi officials visiting U.S. communities, but not to Americans visiting Iraq.

Yet there has been an increased interest in partnerships between U.S. cities and communities in the Middle East, said Jenny Oliver, who oversees the Islamic Partnership Initiative for Sister Cities International. But as in Laguna Niguel, safety concerns have often frustrated aspirations by U.S. officials to visit Iraq, and they have often substituted humanitarian aid.

In one such gesture Friday, five Marines from Camp Pendleton arrived at Laguna Niguel City Hall to load a van and a truck with the latest shipment of soccer balls, hand pumps and school supplies bound for Qaim.

“These will be in the kids’ hands in a week,” Lance Cpl. George Boyd said.

Bohm said some indirect exchanges, such as a pen pal program and e-mail correspondence, could start soon.

“When the Iraqi people see the sacrifices the American public is willing to make, it will change their perception of us,” he said.

“I want to show people of the U.S. is that not all Iraqis are fanatic insurgents that want to blow people up.”

Nabil Toma, an engineer from Laguna Niguel who was born in Baghdad and left in 1977, said he was skeptical yet supportive of the idea, and planned to join the fledgling sister city committee the city is forming.

“Obviously with the situation in Iraq, people over there don’t have that much to offer at this point,” he said.

“I want people to understand that it’s not going to be the typical sister city relationship, it’s going to be a one-way street until things improve.”