Shortly after US and British forces pushed through this dusty port town in southern Iraq at the start of the coalition invasion, a school administrator got a crazy idea.
It was the kind of inspired thought that might have gotten him jailed, beaten, even killed a few days earlier. But now, Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party operatives were on the run, and in Umm Qasr, Najim Abed Mahdi could suddenly think the unthinkable. He and a handful of other Iraqis banded together to form their own town council.
They did it because their community needed fresh water, electricity, ice, garbage collection, security from looters, and other essentials. But by taking up the mantle of leadership in a fashion banned by Hussein, the Umm Qasr council may have made history - creating what US officials see as the first Iraqi model of a grass-roots democracy in a once-barren political landscape.
It is an example they hope will be replicated across Iraq. And, analysts say, it is the essence of what must happen for the US and Britain to win the peace.
"We are the first," says Mr. Mahdi, sitting at a conference table with the nine other members of the newly formed Umm Qasr town council. "Now we are the capital of free Iraq."
What began several weeks ago with a tentative gesture toward British troops has blossomed into full-bore civic involvement in this community of 40,000 near Iraq's only modern seaport. American and British officials are scrambling to nurture the effort. Many say they're amazed, and some compare it to America's own struggle for freedom more than 200 years ago.
"That's the Jefferson and Madison of Umm Qasr," says US Marine Major Jeff Jurgensen, pointing to Mahdi and another council member as they head across town to resolve a dispute over gasoline prices.
"We have been looking for this moment for 35 years," says Kazem Ghaze, a shipping-company translator and a "founding father" of the new Umm Qasr. "We want to live. We want to breathe. We want to sleep peacefully."
Adds Council Chairman Mahdi, "And we want to remove the dust upon our minds - dust from Saddam Hussein."
Not everyone in town has been clambering aboard Mahdi's freedom train. Early on, there were reports that Baath Party officials were coming back to the town at night, preparing to retaliate.
Councilmembers persisted. "They had a lot of guts," says Raphael Jabba, a USAID official.
It took nearly two weeks for the administrator of Umm Qasr's Mother Of All Battles Hospital to take down the once-mandatory portrait of Saddam in his office. Two days and a can of spray paint later, the hospital's name was changed to Umm Qasr Hospital.
Don Finn, who works with the US government's Disaster Assistance Response Team, says the British military played an important role in creating an atmosphere conducive to the council's creation. "Early on, they sent out patrols, both day and night, without their helmets or flak jackets," he says. "They wanted to show the community that things were stable and that they trusted the community." It worked, Mr. Finn says. "It was a calming effect."
Whether the Umm Qasr experience will be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. "We are going to have to take it on a case-by-case basis," says Mr. Jabba. "We will move into Basra in a week or so and deal with the local council that has emerged there."
Less certain is what happens in the Shiite Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Will Shiite clerics agree to share local power with nonreligious groups in order to guarantee humanitarian aid and reconstruction help from the US and Britain? Or will they reject offers of help from the west?
Many Shiite leaders are urging followers to oppose all US efforts to set up an interim government. Some of Baghdad's Sunni Muslims are issuing similar calls, demanding coalition troops leave Iraq immediately.
"Every community is going to be a learning curve," says Major Jurgensen, a spokes-man for the US Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. The office is headed by retired General Jay Garner, appointed by President Bush to run an interim administration in Iraq.
Jurgensen says the US is prepared to listen to the needs of every Iraqi community and offer a flexible response. "The things that work here in Umm Qasr may not work [in towns and cities] to the north," he says. But the key, Jurgensen continues, will be allowing emerging leaders in each town to determine what assistance they need to protect and improve their communities.
In Umm Qasr, fresh water is now being distributed in each neighborhood by trucks from Kuwait. Generators are providing temporary power until the normal grid is repaired. Efforts are under way for basic phone and even Internet services. The food distribution system set up under the United Nations' oil-for-food program has been preserved and is in place to prevent shortages. And British military police officers are training the new 20-man Umm Qasr police force.
In addition, propane gas canisters will soon be distributed to facilitate cooking in neighborhood homes. Residents will receive new water containers. The US government is helping develop a local education campaign to promote tolerance and understanding rather than looting and violence. And the town is slated to receive a prefabricated, three-room town hall - adjacent to a playground recently assembled by US Navy Seabees (construction battalion, or C-B) from Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Among their other projects, the Seabees are renovating a school on the edge of town. The two-story building will house secondary-education classes for 370 girls. When completed next week, it will be one of the area's nicest structures. Seabee project chief Wayne Lanham, an electrical contractor from New Egypt, N.J., says he's hired 23 Umm Qasr residents to help. They are paid $2 a day - decent wages in Iraq. Most Iraqi workers, he says, have been earning $10 a month.
The project puts American reservists in close contact with Iraqis - including scores of curious children. "This is probably the greatest thing I've done in my life," says John Shirmer, a construction worker from New Cumberland, Pa., with a large "Seabees" tattoo on his left arm. "Last week when we came in, it was a little tough, because [locals] didn't trust us. But now they know we are here to help them."
Mike Davis, a New York City subway driver, says he had mixed feelings when called up for service. But now, he says, he's glad to be here. "We just hope the students that come to this school see what we have done and, for generations to come, won't think of the United States as bad."