Democracy begins to sprout in Iraq

Political parties - from liberal democrats to Islamists - rush to gain a foothold.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Up from the rubble of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, the first tentative seedlings of democracy are poking their heads, as political parties of every shape and form race to put down roots in the new Iraq.

Commandeering abandoned buildings, putting up flags and banners to announce their presence, and signing up new members, communists, monarchists, Islamists, liberal democrats, and army generals are taking advantage of freedoms that their country has not known for decades.

Some of that freedom is the fruit of the anarchy that still prevails in Iraq, with no functioning government, few public services, and wide uncertainty among ordinary citizens about what their future holds.

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The disorder extends to the nascent democracy.

Jassem Hamed has set up a branch office of the US-backed Iraqi National Congress in the cramped reception area of a former Baghdad passport office that was burned, looted, and trashed. While his colleagues make tea in the courtyard on a fire fueled by passport records, he explains that he joined the party a week ago, and was given his responsibility because a cousin works as a bodyguard to INC leader Ahmed Chalabi.

He is unclear exactly what his party stands for. "They say the INC will publish a booklet explaining what it is about, and when I read it, if I am convinced, I will stay," he says. "If not, I will leave. For the moment, it is just about democracy."

Across town, Communist Party Central Committee member Adel Khaled voices a more politically astute viewpoint.Recently emerged from five years of underground organizing, he is clearly delighted by the bustle of activity in his makeshift headquarters as the committed and the curious elbow their way to a table piled with clenched fist posters and copies of the party newspaper.

"If people feel secure, if they are allowed to express how they feel, they will come to us," he says confidently. "The party has existed for and from the people so they have been aware of us for a long time."

Iraq does not yet have the interim government that US officials say is planned, and it is not even clear who will be appointed to it, aside from two leading Kurdish parties and the INC.

But already the first flush of democratic excitement is unsettling some participants.

"It is normal ... that people are enthusiastic, because they can express their ideas," says Khasro Jaaf, head of the Baghdad office of the Kurdish Democratic Party. "But there is a hairsbreadth of difference between democracy and the jungle. The longer the Americans stay, the safer it will be for each party to present its ideas."

Others are encouraged by the "anything goes" mood. "There are parties opening up that we have never heard of," says Zaab Sethna, spokesman for the INC. "In general, we think it is a very good thing, a very good sign of the beginnings of civil society."

Mr. Jaaf, an architect with a mane of gray hair and a flamboyant manner, has chosen a Baghdad headquarters for his party after his own style: the marbled mansion once occupied by Saddam Hussein's personal team of palace architects.

Other parties seem to have chosen and occupied other abandoned public buildings with which they feel some affinity: The Communist Party has installed itself in an apartment block that once housed Soviet advisers, and draped it with red banners proclaiming the party slogan - "A free country and a happy people."

The Islamist Dawa party has set up in the Sindbad youth center - its overgrown garden pitted with sandbagged foxholes - and hung a handpainted banner from the fence declaring that "The will of Allah rules."

The INC has established its temporary headquarters in the Iraqi Hunting Club, once a favorite haunt of Saddam's elder son Uday in the capital's posh Mansour district.

For all Iraqi wannabe politicians, returning from exile or emerging from clandestinity, the first order of business is to introduce themselves to the public.

Mr. Chalabi has been meeting supporters who risked their lives inside Iraq to send his organization information.

The KDP office's role is to "spread our program of democracy and federalism" to the 1 million Kurds who live in the capital, Jaaf says.

The Free Officers and Civilians Movement, led by former Iraqi Gen. Najib Salihi, is signing up new members in thick ledgers, name by carefully numbered name, from the cool recesses of a private house lent to them by a benefactor. Some have already been issued membership cards - a map of Iraq emblazoned with "Iraq First" on one side, the owner's name, date of birth, and blood type on the other.

"We are just taking names and telling people to wait until General Salihi arrives," says an officer in charge of registration. "He will be here in a few days."

From his INC branch office on Haifa St., Mr. Hamed is handing out yellow, blue, and green party flags and posters of Mr. Chalabi. "I tell people who ask for the posters that I want them to know Mr. Chalabi and what he is doing, not just put up the pictures as they did with Saddam Hussein," he says.

Hamed cannot help, however, when people come - as he says they often do - to ask when electricity or running water will return to their neighborhoods. "I advise them to go to our main office, because I have no information," he explains. "I cannot tell them much because I don't know."

Communist Party militants are distributing their party newspaper, "The Peoples' Press," whose appearance in Baghdad last weekend - the first paper to be published since the former government fell - was an early sign of the party's organizational skills.

Once the biggest party in Iraq, the Communist Party was brutally repressed by President Hussein, who saw it as a serious threat to his power. But thousands of activists continued to organize secret cells, Mr. Khaled says, and now they are coming out of hiding to build their party anew.

Among their converts on Tuesday was Col. Ghassan Nouri, who teaches at the Iraqi Army Staff College in Baghdad. He had stopped by the Free Officers and Civilian Movement that morning, he said, but found "a few people sitting around doing nothing. I was not satisfied that they were serious."

"This is a clearer organization," he said of the Communists. "They are the oldest party in Iraq, most members are very educated and very nationalist, and the Communist Party has done nothing shameful to this country. They have always fought against the regimes."

The birth pangs of democracy have spawned one fiasco already. One INC operative who reached Baghdad ahead of his leaders, Mohammed Mehsin al Zubeidi, announced to the world last week that he had been chosen as the capital's top civilian official by a gathering of intellectuals, tribal leaders, and policemen, and that he was working in tandem with the Americans.

Barbara Bodine, coordinator for central Iraq in the US civil administration, disowned him, however, on Monday, saying she did not know how he had been elected.

"We haven't had any contact with him since we got to Baghdad," says INC spokesman Sethna. "In fact, he is off the reservation."

Some observers expect the flood of new political parties to recede once the initial fervor dies down, and the largest, best established groups impose their authority.

"The next few months will tell who is strong and who is not," says Khaled. "We have just come out of the war, and if democracy establishes itself you'll see a lot of changes."

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