2005 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Tobin Bradley

Organized 15 local elections in southern Iraq and developed a voting system that the U.N. used as the basis for the January 2005 national elections.

In late 2003, an international debate was raging over whether or not direct elections were possible in post-Saddam Iraq, with questions ranging from the capacity of the Iraqi people to make such a dramatic break with tradition to more practical matters such as the lack of accurate voter rolls. Few people did more to prove that these barriers could be overcome and make the historic January 2005 national elections possible than 29-year-old Foreign Service Officer Tobin Bradley. While leaders were asking if elections could be held, Bradley was actually holding them in more than a dozen cities in southern Iraq. And the voting system he employed would eventually be used as the basis for the January 2005 national elections.

Mr. Bradley was one of the first members of the Foreign Service to volunteer for duty in Iraq. From September 2003 to May 2004, he served as the Political Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the Southern province of Dhi Qar, Iraq, about 230 miles from the relative safety of the Green Zone in Baghdad. His mission was to develop sustainable government and democratic institutions for the new Iraq.

In one of Iraq’s poorest, politically split, and most damaged provinces by Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bradley set out to establish direct district and city council elections. In the Dhi Qar province, described as a backwater even by Iraqi standards, almost all of Mr. Bradley’s work to set up these council elections was without precedent, forcing him to constantly make changes on the fly.

For each election, he used his Arabic speaking skills to build trust with local Iraqis, organizing town meetings and seeking input. He would then organize a committee of unaffiliated residents to determine the conditions for the candidates, such as the minimum age requirement. Next, he had to come up with a way to decide how residents would qualify to cast ballots. Without up-to-date voter rolls, Bradley decided to use computer generated cards that had been issued by Hussein’s government to distribute rations.

Among other information, these cards identified the head-of-household and ration distribution centers. In the first two elections that Bradley ran it was one family one vote. This meant that virtually only men voted. But Bradley knew that he needed to do more to increase participation by women. So Bradley changed the rules to give two votes to each family – a red stamp for women and a blue stamp for men. He also worked with local activists to develop ads and workshops to educate women, and men, about women’s civil rights and responsibilities. As a result, women’s participation jumped from just three female voters in the first few elections he ran to more than 20 percent of the electorate in most elections and over 40 percent in another. In fact, Salwa Daidan, a schoolteacher, was so influenced by Bradley’s efforts that she decided to run for office. She won, becoming the first woman freely and directly elected in the Shi’a south.

Another major obstacle to overcome was security. In one instance, noted insurgent Moqtada al Sadr’s forces tried to disrupt Bradley’s work, cutting off the city with an armed blockade and stationing snipers aimed at Bradley’s compound and other Coalition positions throughout the city. After two direct attacks on his position, Bradley, the only Arabic-speaker on the compound during this period, communicated directly with Al-Sadr’s interlocutor and convinced the al-Sadr group to stand down their forces.

All of Bradley’s work was done on a shoestring budget, with elections typically costing about $600 each.

Bradley’s success in organizing 15 elections garnered positive international press and provided a boost to those arguing that timely elections in Iraq were actually possible. But perhaps the significant impact of Bradley’s work came from his use of the ration cards.

When the United Nations team was planning the national elections, they met with Mr. Bradley to learn how he had used the ration cards in the local elections. UN officials subsequently determined that this was the most effective strategy for creating a voter registry, and they used this system for the January 2005 national election.

In February 2004, The Washington Post said Bradley’s work “may stand as one of the most ambitious democratic experiments in Iraq’s history, a project that goes to the heart of how Iraq’s next government should be chosen.” In light of the success of the 2005 national election, it now seems safe to drop the qualifier. Tobin Bradley made history.

This medalist was the recipient of the International Affairs Medal. This medal was combined with the National Security category in 2008, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.