Iraq's pioneers of democracy listen - but can't do much
SUQ ASH SHUYUKH, IRAQ
Ali Muttar sits behind a desk in his dim office, shielded from the scorching sun outside by a sheet draped over the window. He listens to a litany of complaints and petitions from the men seated around the walls who have turned to their town council president for help.Skip to next paragraph
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One wants a job. Another wants to know when this poverty-stricken town's inoperative sewage system will be repaired. A third wonders where students from a bombed school will start classes this week. The local librarian has no chairs in the library.
Mr. Muttar shrugs helplessly. "We have great responsibilities," he says. "We face the people and we have to talk to them. But we have no resources and there is very little we can do."
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell have trumpeted local councils as one of the most important and underreported democratic fruits of US-led reconstruction in Iraq. But in the southern province of Diq Ar, at least, such councils are broke and powerless, according to their members and coalition officials.
"The city councils that sprang up after the war have no easy way to fit into the ad- ministrative structure," says Adrian Weale, an official with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in the capital of Diq Ar, Nasariyah. "The councils don't have budgets because there has been a realization that they are not the best way to use money to reconstruct the economy."
Instead, he says, the CPA is channeling funds through recently reestablished government ministries and their local representatives at regional and town levels, in the same way the former regime did. "The town councils really don't have any formal responsibilities other than as advisory bodies to the CPA," he adds.
That leaves these pioneers of Iraqi democracy dangerously vulnerable, worries Haider Faisal, head of the town council in Fadliya, 10 miles from Nasariyah, that was elected earlier this month under CPA supervision.
"If we don't provide services, people will say democracy is nonsense, just empty words," he frets, sitting in the office he has set up in the local police station, equipped with only a desk and a few chairs. "Some people are saying it already: others will soon."
"There is an issue as to whether the system will make the councils look incompetent and powerless," acknowledges John Bourne, head of the CPA in Nasariyah. "It doesn't have to, but it would be an own-goal if it ends up like that."
Town councils sprang up spontaneously all over Iraq in the aftermath of the war, led sometimes by active opponents of Saddam Hussein, sometimes by local tribal leaders, and sometimes by opportunists.
Since then, the CPA has run elections for hundreds of local councils in small towns, often using ration cards as voter registration cards, though in the larger cities elections have proved impracticable.
In Nasariyah, for example, the fourth largest city in the country, the local council that emerged as US forces took the town is still in place, but furious to find itself sidelined by the CPA.
"It's our right to run our business, we know our people better than they do," insists Nasser Hassan, the council chairman. "They award contracts without informing us, they impose things on us. If the CPA stays like this it will be a dictatorship again."
Mr. Hassan is upset, say a number of local residents, because he had hoped to control job tenders and thus win opportunities to make money himself.
But even the council leaders elected in CPA-run votes, well disposed to the coalition occupation authorities, say they are frustrated.
Councilors meet formally once a week but spend most of their days at the council office.