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Democracy from scratch

One Baghdad neighborhood's halting steps toward self-rule

(Page 3 of 3)

"When you provide security on the streets, then I will be able to bring prices down," Mr. Jabire tells Capt. Roger Elliott at a utilities subcommittee meeting. The Americans want to implement a coupon system allowing families to buy cooking gas at a guaranteed price, while distributors insist that security for truck drivers and street vendors must be addressed.

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The propane-gas issue is one of the most pressing for a poor community like Sadr City - with prices having jumped from about 20 cents a canister before the war, to as much as $3 today. Yet while price gouging is a problem all over Baghdad, the Americans in Sadr City also know that if they can devise a plan with the council that successfully lowers prices, it will be a coup for the council's legitimacy with the public.

Other projects big and small are advancing, with the twin goals of instilling democratic practices and building faith in the new Iraq - which can sometimes seem in short supply.

Major Vidal is focused on Sadr City's sewer system, which had almost ceased functioning under the weight of tons of accumulated mud and refuse, and near total abandonment. With US money, the right spare parts, and the knowledge of Iraqi engineers, eight of 10 pumping stations are working again, and plans are progressing to install new lines and relieve an inadequate system.

"We run into a lot of people who lack the initiative to get things done; they're looking for someone else to provide the answers," says Vidal, a resident of Needham, Mass. "It's a product of the system they lived under, where things were done for them and no one took responsibility out of fear for his life," Vidal says. "But as with these Iraqi engineers, I told them I'd get the parts but they would have to do the work, and that's what happened. It's an example of how things are changing."

Seeing hands-on experience with the workings of a democratic system as crucial to having it take hold, US authorities have implemented a plan in which each of 103 neighborhoods in Sadr City will get $10,000 for community projects.

Some of the projects proposed so far include preschools, playgrounds, Internet cafes, and job-training centers. But as RTI's Mr. Jonaby says, the goal of the 103 projects is as much the process - getting to the bricks and mortar stage - as it is the end product. "The idea is for a range of people to learn how to handle a budget, to consider more than their own interests in getting something done for the neighborhood, basically to learn how representative government works," he says.

Getting traction, despite setbacks

Despite setbacks, like the Kaabi killing, the Americans working in Sadr City say they feel they're getting traction. As Gass says, "Every day the evidence is a little stronger that the council members understand the benefits of this system, and we even see signs out in the community of it catching on."

Most local residents coming by the district-council building seem to be looking for a job, but others have joined in street cleanups and soccer-field improvement projects. It's especially encouraging to the soldiers when the kids join in.

After another day on the democracy front, the American soldiers head home in a convoy from the Sadr City council to their base in an old cigarette factory renamed Camp Marlboro. They quickly get caught in an average Baghdad traffic jam and encounter mostly indifference, mixed with a few grimaces, that convey an underlying discomfort with the occupation.

But once through the bottleneck, the hummers, Bradleys, and transport trucks turn down an unclogged residential street, where they pass a group of kids busily sweeping up the trash that has collected outside their houses. The concept of trash collection died out after the Gulf War and is only now being reestablished.

The convoy slows, and several soldiers lean out and give the kids the thumbs up. "Hey, Mister!" the Iraqi children shout, running along side, and reaching to touch the hands of the soldiers.