Beneath a brilliant noon sun, they sit staring at the foreigner who is introducing democracy - American-style.
Here in their hardscrabble village, set in a flat expanse of marsh, palm trees, and sand, the tribal representatives, clad in brown cloaks and checkered head scarves, sit beside bearded men in cotton slacks and leather jackets. A small group of women, hidden by their billowing black chadors, listens intently as children run around their feet.
"The purpose of today's gathering is to select a council for the this township," Jim Soriano, the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) coordinator for the province of Muthanna, tells them. "It is a living symbol of Iraq's democratic transformation."
With a provincial council and four city councils already formed in the province of Muthanna, this is the first of seven town council selections to be held over the next three weeks. It is an anxious moment for the CPA representatives and the team from the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a US-based nonprofit, who organized the selection process. They are aware that CPA headquarters in Baghdad will be closely watching the selection process, the first practical demonstration of the new democracy being ushered into the rural heartland of Iraq.
While the weekend capture of Saddam Hussein has received worldwide attention, it is here in Muthanna that a true success story is in the making.
Muthanna is the second-largest province in Iraq and almost certainly the poorest. Its predominantly Shiite inhabitants were brutally repressed under Mr. Hussein's regime, its infrastructure underfunded, its economy based on low-scale agriculture.
During the war to oust Hussein, American troops were warmly welcomed by the Shiite population when they advanced into Samawa, Muthanna's capital. The province remains calm, with no attacks against coalition troops and almost no support for the mainly Sunni guerrillas operating further north.
"We have a seven-month timetable and we would like to keep them friendly until we turn off the lights and go home," says one foreign official, referring to July 1, when the US has said it will turn the country over to Iraqi control.
The peaceful atmosphere has helped the coalition press ahead with establishing local administrations, outstripping other provinces and winning praise from the CPA in Baghdad.
The process began simply, by putting up posters in Rumaytha, a small town on the northern edge of the province, and asking for the names of suitable candidates for a town council. The list was to be vetted by an eight-man council that had been appointed in April by the occupying American troops.
A list of 100 names was compiled and then checked and rechecked to ensure no one significant had been omitted. The candidates met in the town hall to vote on who would sit on the council.
"We only had 50 pencils. So a [Dutch] marine broke them in two and sharpened them while another cuts up bits of paper for voting slips," the official says.
The first vote produced a city manager who then handled the rest of the proceedings. A town council was born consisting of seven members, each responsible for a different sector, such as health, water and sewage, and security.
The caucus system is being further refined through a census, which will provide a breakdown of the community. So successful is the system that Paul Bremer, chief US administrator in Iraq, has ordered that the "Muthanna model" be adopted by the 17 other provinces.
It is not all smooth sailing, however. Tribal leaders object to the inclusion of technocrats. The technocrats accuse the tribes of being semiliterate and incapable of handling modern-day civic affairs. The clerics grumble that they should carry greater weight in the councils. On one subject, however, they are in agreement. No one wants women councilors. The CPA guidelines for the selection process decrees that 10 percent of the caucus must be women.
Now Sweir, a tiny town 140 miles southeast of Baghdad, has to navigate this process. It has assembled a caucus of 87 prominent people, representing the tribes, professionals, and other local notables. One stands up and asks if it is permitted to nominate oneself for the council. No problem, he is told.
The candidates for the health position on the council seat walk to the front and state their names and qualifications. The rest of the caucus file up the ballot box and place their voting slips inside.
"They are slowly beginning to take control at a local level, which is important," says RTI's Alistair Blunt. "If the people can see how it works now, even in a crude form, it will serve as a lesson on how to do it in the future."
The first vote is a near clean sweep for Adnan Jarbouah, receiving 78 votes while his two rivals obtain only seven votes between them.
The big question, however, is whether the local councils will continue as models of democracy and representation once the occupation ends and the coalition leaves Iraq.
"My greatest fear is that we will get back to centralization," Mr. Blunt says. "The danger is that those who have the power will always want to keep it. I hope they have the foresight to understand that they have power today but may not have it tomorrow."
Khaled Hassoun, who has just won the seat for water and sewage, is pessimistic. "I hope it will last, but it is impossible," he says with an apologetic smile. "This is a new experience for us. We lack the experience and everyone always has ambitions to stay in power if they can."