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.
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.
They receive a $120-a-month stipend, and hold no other jobs. In return, councilors are expected to facilitate the work of government departments, "but we have great problems doing this," says Mr. Faisal, whose small town and surroundings are home to 37,000 people. "We don't have a single vehicle, we have got no money from the CPA, just words and empty promises.... We are simply left to be embarrassed before the people."
In fact, say Faisal and Muttar, his counterpart a few miles up the road in Suq Ash Shuyukh, the most useful thing they can do is to help settle disputes among local people, or help calm angry citizens disappointed by poor service from a government department.
The scale of the frustration matches the scale of the problems facing the authorities as they plan Iraq's reconstruction. Though Nasariyah and surrounding towns enjoy 24 hours a day electricity from the region's power plant - unlike most places in the country - little else works.
Southern Iraq, populated mainly by Shiite Muslims who suffered brutal repression under Saddam Hussein, has been starved of investment for 20 years or more.
Potentially rich farmland and massive oil reserves have yielded no benefits for local people. "We are like a camel, carrying gold on its back but eating only thorns," complains Mr. Hassan.
The result has been a catastrophic breakdown in local services: The streets of Fadliya and Suq Ash Shuyukh run with raw sewage, drinking water is hardly treated, pipes are broken, mud and straw schools have no windows and little furniture, and the pharmacy at Fadliya's tiny clinic has no analgesics.
"The scale of the problems sometimes makes you want to cover your eyes and wonder what to do first," says Mr. Bourne, the CPA chief.
Delays in setting up a central administrative bureaucracy in Baghdad, Bourne says, have slowed reconstruction efforts, meaning that five months after President Bush declared the war over, there is still little to show local people in the way of improvements to their lives.
He hopes that he will be able to pry money out of CPA headquarters to pay men to demolish the 50 or so buildings in Nasariya that were so badly damaged during the war they cannot be rehabilitated.
But such one-off projects will not solve the region's fundamental problem - the fact that more than 70 percent of local men are unemployed. "Turning that around," Bourne says, "is a mammoth task ... a vast, vast project" that will depend on the overall economic policies that the government in Baghdad applies, and will take years.
In the meantime, none of the unemployed are receiving the emergency payments that former government employees are currently living on, and the hardships they are enduring are embittering many Iraqis in this region. "The only realistic approach is some sort of benefits system, but I don't know if there's enough money,"
Bourne says, "My message to Baghdad is that we don't have much time" before popular resentment boils over into public anger against the coalition, even in a region where goodwill is widespread, built on gratitude to the US-led forces that rid the country of Saddam Hussein.
In the meantime, says Muttar, all he can do is try to lower his fellow citizens' expectations.
"People think that a newly elected council leader has a magic wand to solve all their problems. They don't believe me when I say I don't have any money to help them."
And even Muttar, who says he is 100 percent behind the coalition, says his helplessness, and the lack of any visible signs of progress in his town since the Americans arrived, have raised a question in his mind.
"Did the Americans come with good intentions and bad planning, or with bad intentions?" he asks. "People's confidence in us will last six months, perhaps. If they lose faith, we will resign."