Democracy from scratch
One Baghdad neighborhood's halting steps toward self-rule
(Page 2 of 3)
In Sadr City, the district council is beginning to tackle some key local issues, like price gouging by propane cooking-gas distributors, sewage service, and school security. But at the meeting last week to elect a new chairman, progress seems slow. After a moment of silence for the fallen chairman, council members hear a long apology for Kaabi's death.Skip to next paragraph
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Calling the killing a "tragic event," Maj. George Sarabia tells the council that Kaabi's death "represents a great loss for the family, the community, and the people of Iraq." The director of community relations and psychological operations for the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment camped at Sadr City goes on to say that, while an investigation into the death is ongoing, "I can assure you the coalition is moving toward a fair settlement."
Then Major Sarabia, a gentle Texan from Houston, reminds the council members - who range from tribal leaders in robes and headdress to shop owners and teachers - that even while the investigation continues, they have work to do. "The welfare of more than 2 million people depends on the leadership in this room," he says. "It's very important [that your] voice represents the needs of Sadr City."
Before the election of a new chairman, Major Gass reads from a new citywide procedural manual that gives the steps of the nomination and election processes. The University of Houston teacher and resident of Humble, Texas, pauses frequently to allow an interpreter to repeat in Arabic the rules of order he is explaining. By the end of the session, a new chairman has been elected, and the council chamber - a stark room with plastic patio chairs - has been named in honor of the fallen Kaabi.
Yet despite the small steps, some see progress. Farhan Gabbar is one member who finds the council system "a good experience for the Iraqi people." Uncomplaining as he sits in a sliver of an office poring over job applications with only a small window behind him for light, Mr. Gabbar says, "It's a new kind of democracy, something unknown but exciting for us."
As chairman of the DAC's administrative committee, Gabbar oversees the group that reviews applications for jobs offered by different ministries. In this case he is looking over a few of the 1,300 applications his committee took in for 300 school-guard jobs the Education Ministry has created in Sadr City. It's the kind of job that is in high demand, as attested to by the crowds of anxious men that gather every day outside the security cordon of the Sadr DAC.
Those crowds tell Gabbar and others on the inside that the community is starting to see the councils as their representatives - or at least as seats of important local decisionmaking. "There's a good relationship between the council and people on the street," Gabbar says, although no one claims the councils don't have a long way to go on the public-relations front.
Many people in Sadr City don't even seem to know the neighborhood and district councils exist, and because they were not elected by the population in general but rather by smaller numbers gathered at neighborhood meetings, some locals don't consider them legitimate.
A few begrudge them their willingness to work with the occupying power.
Harsher still, Hussein Daeem Resan, head of the Sadr City office of the Shiite Daawa Party, says the council's distance from the people explains why the few protests that sprang up after Kaabi's killing died out so quickly. "Most people didn't even know who this man was, so nothing much happened," he says. "If he had been a true representative of the people, like a religious leader, then there would have been an explosion."
A few council members have resigned, others have been removed for exceeding the number of allowed absences from weekly council meetings. But most have stayed on, and are picking up the work that came to a halt with Kaabi's death.
Karem Hashim al-Jabire, a DAC member and cooking-gas distributor who keeps to traditional tribal dress, is one member who "suspended" his relations "with all representatives of the coalition" after Kaabi's death. But the plan he had helped draw up before the killing to bring down the exorbitant propane prices is languishing, so he agreed to come back.