Democracy from scratch

One Baghdad neighborhood's halting steps toward self-rule

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

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.

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.

Democracy is 'exciting'

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.

"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.

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.

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