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Democracy from scratch

One Baghdad neighborhood's halting steps toward self-rule

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2003


Maj. Arthur Vidal, a big, mustachioed soldier with the gusto of an operatic baritone, strides helmeted and flak-jacketed into the dingy foyer of the Sadr City District Advisory Council building, and sums up the scene before him.

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"Ah, welcome to Democracy 101!" booms the civil-affairs officer, before adding, "Make that Democracy 101 - Phase 2."

On this recent afternoon, the US-created district council for Sadr City - a rundown section of Baghdad with exhausted infrastructure, 2 million people, and too few jobs - is to elect a new chairman. The previous chairman, Mohammed al-Kaabi, was shot and killed on Nov. 9 when he got in a shoving match with a US soldier controlling the council building's entrance. Proclaiming his honor was being questioned, Mr. Kaabi had demanded to enter the building without once again submitting to what he saw as a humiliating weapons search.

The killing of Kaabi led to protest marches, a brief boycott by council members, and an introduction for the Americans working in Sadr City to the Iraqi concepts of honor, blood money, and public apology. It also caused a setback to the process of local democracy building.

As a guerrilla war continues to ratchet up all around them, Major Vidal and a battalion of other US soldiers here are on the front line of a different battle for Iraq - the one that is supposed to turn the country into a democracy, beginning with representative local government.

That mission has taken on a new urgency with the US recently bowing to Iraqi demands to assume full sovereignty quicker than what the Americans originally envisaged. Now a provisional national government is to be created by July 1, through selection of national representatives that at least at this point - unless the US decides to go with full elections - is to involve local councils like Sadr City's.

But as the tenuous progress of the Sadr City District Advisory Council, or DAC, demonstrates, cultivating democracy is not quick business: roots may eventually grow deep, but there's no guarantee the seeds will sprout in the first place.

A passionate believer in the system

When Kaabi died on the pavement outside the council building, Americans shed tears for an Iraqi several of them had come to know as a passionate believer in the new system of governance slowly being created. But they also wept over the fragility of the "Democracy 101" project that some of them have been working on for seven months.

It's a project none of the soldiers ever asked for, but one most of them have come to believe in.

"The good Lord knows we've screwed this thing up from the get-go, but He also knows every one of us has our heart in the right place, and I think the Iraqis feel that, too," says Maj. Paul Gass, a tireless liaison between the Sadr district council and the American authorities. "We all want to help the Iraqis build something better than what they're coming out of, that's why it can be so upsetting when there's a setback. Sometimes it can seem so slow going."

In Baghdad, American authorities created nine district councils like Sadr City's, with representatives sent by 88 neighborhood advisory councils. The district councils, in turn, sent representatives to the Baghdad City Advisory Council to work with the American administration, under US administrator Paul Bremer, on everything from creating a new Baghdad police force to refurbishing schools and collecting trash. Similar advisory councils have been set up across the country.

But the underlying idea behind a pyramidic local-governance system - in Baghdad's case, one involving more than 800 Iraqi representatives - is to instill the principles of representative democracy in a country accustomed to dictatorship.

"The point of these councils is to move the country from a top-down system where everything was ordered and based on oppression to one where ordinary Iraqis take on the task of representing citizens, not controlling them," says Imad Jonaby, an Iraqi-American assigned by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), contracted by the Pentagon, to work on governance issues in Sadr City. "It's a test for democracy. Can it work here?" he asks.