Iraqis impatient for promised democracy

Four months after the US occupied Iraq, citizens wonder when they will have a say in the new government.

Four months after US officials began administering Iraq, many Iraqis are still waiting to see what role they will have in determining the country's new political system.

The workings of both the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council it appointed in mid-July take place behind high walls and rolls of concertina wire, creating a sense of distance that leaves many citizens feeling disenfranchised from the creation of a political framework for the new Iraq.

Sergio Vieira de Mello detected this distance. In an interview a week before being killed by a truck bomb Aug. 19, the UN's top representative in Iraq - a close observer and strong supporter of the US and British effort to establish a democracy here - said: "Let's make sure they [Governing Council members] come out of their ivory tower and communicate with the Iraqi people."

But the common complaint of many Iraqis - that the US is not fulfilling its vow to create a democracy - is based on more than their sense of being removed from power.

"The Americans said they came ... to liberate Iraq from the former regime and promised to help us stand up again and reconstruct the country," says Salah al-Ezzi, a doctor who presides over one of Iraq's many tribes from a verdant, palm-fringed yard in a village an hour outside of central Baghdad. Four months later, he continues, Iraqis instead face arrests and checkpoints. "They don't pay any respect to the people," he says of the Americans.

Dr. Ezzi's views may be partly the product of impatience. It has been a year and eight months since the US toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and general elections there are still 10 months away. It took US occupation authorities in post-World War II Japan more than a year and a half to hold elections. Postwar Germany was occupied by the allies in June 1945, with the first zone elections in 1946, and the first West German parliamentary vote held only in August 1949.

Such precedents may not ease the frustration many Iraqis feel that elections are not yet in sight and that the political milestones of the current transitional phase - such as the creation of the Governing Council and of a mechanism to write a new constitution - are being passed without their direct input.

The CPA appointed the 25 Governing Council members, rather than establishing a way for them to be popularly selected. In all likelihood, according to top Iraqi and US officials, Iraq's new constitution will be written by a group chosen through a consultative process, rather than an electoral one.

A banner hanging off a balcony in Baghdad's main market captures the discomfort of many Iraqis over the lack of an elected constitutional assembly. Appointing a charter-writing council, the banner says, in Arabic and overcapitalized English, "Is An Insult To The Iraqi Efficiency To Elect Those Who Represent Them."

Talk of ratifying a charter through a popular referendum isn't doing much to ease worries that Iraq's politics are being redrawn without popular input. Since late June, the country's most prominent Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, has insisted that those charged with writing a constitution be chosen through direct elections. Unlike some Shiite leaders in Iraq, where some 60 percent of the population subscribes to the Shiite sect of Islam, Ayatollah al-Sistani is considered a moderate who favors the separation of state and mosque.

CPA administrator Paul Bremer, the top US civilian official in Iraq, says elections in Iraq are technically impossible for the time being. "There is no electoral law, there is no political parties law, there are no electoral boundaries, there has been no census for almost 20 years," he argued in an interview in his high-ceilinged office in Baghdad's Republican Palace, a bastion of the old regime. "The Governing Council was a product of very broad consultations with ... notables, town leaders, professionals, men and women from all over the country," he says, adding that a committee appointed by the Governing Council to devise a mechanism for writing the constitution may recommend a similar approach in order to select what he terms a "constitutional conference."

Council member Mowaffak al-Rubaie says the US is pushing too fast toward a democratic system. "I personally feel the Americans are rushing us toward democracy," says Dr. Rubaie ruing the absence of a "democratic culture" in the country. Rubaie, a former spokesman for the Shiite Dawa Party who was repeatedly imprisoned by the Baath regime before going into exile in the 1990s, offers an illustration of how far many Iraqis must come to appreciate democracy. One day last month, after participating in a heated debate during a session of the newly formed Governing Council, one of Rubaie's security men approached him.

The man mentioned a Council member with whom Rubaie had disagreed openly. "Do you want us to finish him off?" the man asked his boss. Rubaie tells the story with an appalled expression. "He meant to kill him!

"We have to wean the majority of the country from this way of thinking," Rubaie concludes.

In the long term, many Iraqis worry that a failure to establish a truly representative government will make it harder for Iraq to overcome the religious and ethnic sectarianism that has bedeviled the country's rulers for decades.

Rubaie credits Bremer and his colleagues for appointing the members of the Council in a way that reflects Iraq's sectarian and ethnic diversity. "Show me one component of the Iraqi community that is not represented here," Rubaie says.

Others aren't so pleased. "You're dissecting the country," says Mudhar Showkat, a senior member of the Iraqi National Congress, a group formed in exile that has advocated speedy elections and a quick return to Iraqi sovereignty. He argues that the allocation of seats according to background sets a dangerous precedent. "You're building up something that will lead to a clash as it did in Lebanon," he warns, citing a country where complex formulas for apportioning power devolved into years of civil war.

The Governing Council has yet to make decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of most Iraqis. So far, it has concentrated on symbolic steps - such as eliminating some holidays established by the former regime - and has delayed naming ministers to head Iraq's bureaucracies. Once the Council puts Iraqis in charge of ministries, their fellow citizens may feel, albeit vicariously, that they have a greater role in government. Meanwhile, Bremer says he and other CPA officials are working to shorten the perceived distance between them and the people they are ruling. And the Council has shortened its Baghdad work week so members can spend more time talking to Iraqis around the country.

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