Iraqi Scouts Thrive Despite Tyranny, War

Often meeting furtively, with no communication with fellow councils throughout the country, Iraqi scouts (search) remained active despite oppression under Saddam Hussein's regime and subsequent war with Iraq — a miracle say Arab scouting representatives.

"The (scouting) movement never died in Iraq, and that is something no one knew," said Malek Gabr, deputy secretary of the World Organization of the Scout Movement (search), based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Now, scouts in Iraq are facing a resurrection with the help of an American, who has sparked a scout reunion of sorts while at the same time putting together an organization of about 350 former scouts among U.S. coalition members based in the "Green Zone" in Baghdad.

Former Navy commander Chip Beck said contacts he made in the city informed him that local Iraqi scouting councils in the 18 provinces had survived attempts by Saddam to cut off sources of funding, meeting places and communication between brother and sister organizations. The scouts were alive and waiting for a chance to resurrect themselves, he said.

“You still have some older scout leaders in their 40s who had been trained by the world scouting organization and knew the ethics and training and maintained it. They kept it up,” Beck told “They’re emerging battered and tattered, but in relatively good shape.”

"The Arab region wants to welcome them with open arms and [is] looking for ways to help them," said Gabr, who spoke to from the Arab Region Council in Cairo, Egypt, which is part of the world organization.

The long and impressive scouting tradition for Iraqi boys and girls dates back to the 1920s. Beck, who had been working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (search) and the Pentagon on communications systems in Baghdad, set about helping the Iraqis fix their scouting system earlier this year.

He placed articles in Arabic newspapers to garner support from the world and regional organizations and found they generated excitement among scouts in and around Baghdad.

“Unbeknownst to me, some Iraqi former scouts were gathering and planting seeds in an old camp that had been burnt down,” said Beck. He made contact with one of the scouts, who took him out to the old campsite — a field out on the road to Jordan.

"By going outside the Green Zone and mingling, he has already found 40 to 50 scout leaders," said Gabr.

Beck said that he and troop leaders found that despite differences in color, religion and politics, they shared the symbols of the patches, the scarves and the fundamental code of scouting that transcend the daily violence and gulf of culture between them.

“They said they lost contact with different parts of the country and outside of the nation, and I said I can help you get those contacts back,” said Beck. “It was really kind of an instant family. It’s like brotherhood and sisterhood.”

Besides helping establish communication between scout troops, Beck is also helping them raise upwards of $4 million from private donations to establish a national camp for boys and girls in an old military training facility on the Tigris River (search) outside of Baghdad. He has won the blessing of local clerics and other religious leaders as well as the nod from several members of the Iraqi Governing Council (search).

Fellow Americans who have also been trying to publicize the positive news amid violence and political uncertainty in Iraq said Beck has stumbled onto something important.

“If you heal the communities, you heal the nation,” said Joan Betros, who had been working in Iraq until recently on behalf of the U.S. government to help Iraqi women and families build dialogue on community media. Female scouts are called “girl guides” in Iraq.

She gauged there was a strong desire to see programs like scouting work.

“You have to have the stabilization of programs and strong family programs to mend the fabric of the nation,” she said.

Gregg Shields, spokesman for the Boys Scouts of America (search), said it was important to emphasize that Beck's program is a distinctly Iraqi project. While approached by Beck to lend some support, the BCA does not have any official connection to his efforts, he said.

“We’re thrilled to see scouting again in Iraq,” Shields said. “We’d like to encourage it and to help but it has to be an Iraqi-born program."

Gabr agreed that perception is everything, and that while Beck has gone out of his way, even risked his life, to bring these old scouts together, the most important message to send is that this is not a U.S effort, but an Iraqi one.

"Chip Beck and his colleagues have been going out of their way to support the movement by all possible means. So far it's been successful," he said.

However, "national feelings are extremely tense and we should not give the impression that the Americans are recruiting scouts in Iraq. That would kill the effort," Gabr added.

Paul Holton, a chief warrant officer with the Utah National Guard has been running his own successful program, Operation Give (search), which distributes thousands of donated toys and school supplies for Iraqi children. He said the risk always exists that programs like Beck’s will attract suspicion, but in this case, Beck has the advantage that Iraqi scouts — an estimated 5,000 nationwide — are already in place.

“It doesn’t have to have an American face to it,” he said. “That was never the intent in a way that looked American or felt American. They can manage it and run with it themselves."

Holton, who has lent his personal support to Beck, added that Beck's mission is critical.

“The children are the most important part – they were neglected by the former regime,” he said.

Gabr agrees.

"Iraqi children have been traumatized by the terrorist regime of Saddam Hussein for years," he said.

Scouting with help instill "a sense of values" and education in a new post-Saddam generation, he said. "That is what scouting is about."