As US exits, can Iraqis deliver?

An occasional series following two local councils in Baghdad

Capt. Roger Maynulet didn't know that liberating Iraq would involve so many photo ops. Yet here he is in a baroque Arab wedding hall in Baghdad for the Hay Somer neighborhood council Christmas party, and he's just upstaged "Papa Noel." Sitting in the bower where newlyweds usually receive their guests, the burly Maynulet is besieged by excited kids clambering over him while laughing parents snap pictures. In between shots, council members and residents whisper in his ear, pressing ideas for neighborhood improvements but also eager to be seen with the American soldier.

This is the occupation the US war-planners had promised, tangible evidence of Iraqis and Americans working towards a better future. But the good feeling in Hay Somer conceals a looming danger for America's most ambitious nation-building project since the end of the cold war.

Across Iraq, the US military has set up hundreds of local councils to serve as the building blocks for Iraq's new political culture. But the Councils have been reliant on their military patrons for what little progress they've made.

A close look at two Baghdad councils - Hay Somer, a middle class neighborhood that is almost half Christian, and Sheikh Maruf, a scruffier and mostly Shiite area - shows that Iraq is filled with courageous people committed to the idea of democracy, but that their efforts are opposed by powerful institutions and habits that can't be changed overnight.

As the Bush Administration moves toward returning sovereignty to Iraq - critics say rushing headlong - Iraq's neighborhood councils provide a tool for measuring whether Iraqi democracy is going to work. The US wants a transitional government to be selected by the middle of the year in a process that will be largely controlled by the Governing Council the US appointed in the middle of last year. Powerful Shiite clerics feel the Governing Council is a US tool, and want free elections to be held by June.

A pivotal time

This week, the Governing Council began a series of nationwide town-hall meetings to test the US-backed transition plan, and the United Nations said it would send in a team to determine if America's contention that it's too soon for elections is correct.

But whatever plan is ultimately executed, the ability of hundreds of average Iraqis to prove they can run their own affairs after decades of authoritarian governments designed to punish initiative and community leadership will be tested. Iraqis will either see democracy work or Iraq fall back into the pattern of autocratic and unstable leadership so familiar in the middle east.

In the months ahead, the Monitor will track these two councils as a window into this process. The slow withdrawal of the US presence in Iraq will change the way the councils work; Maynulet and his counterparts across the country are slowly pulling back from their councils, weaning them from their reliance on US military support.

But with some apprehension. In Hay Somer, Maynulet says he's been gratified by the steps taken so far. "When this started, it consisted of me sitting at the head of the table and basically telling people how things were going to be,'' he says. "As we've gone forward, they've taken more of the initiative and now I'm sitting at the side of the room."

But he's also worried about whether the council is ready to take the last step, and stand up to central government institutions designed to dictate to citizens, rather than to cooperate and listen. "The big question is how much authority the [councils] will be able to carve out for themselves," he says. "The refusal of the municipal government to work with them has been a recurring problem."

High hopes, scant resources

There are also public expectations that are almost impossible to meet - most Iraqi adults believe the government exists to provide jobs and subsidies, and remember the glory days of the early 1980s before the devastating war with Iran, when Hussein's government channeled oil money into subsidized refrigerators and televisions.

The impact of the Baath Party lingers on. Gulizar Panous Ghoogasian, a brassy mother of two who belongs to Iraq's Assyrian Christian minority, was pressured into quitting her job at the United Nations in the early 1990s after refusing to join the party.

She says a desire not to be intimidated anymore inspired her to get involved with the Hay Somer council. "We have to push to make this work,'' says Ms. Ghoogasian, sitting in the neighborhood school where the 12 council members hold their meetings. "The old regime was angry that I was working with foreigners, they called me a spy and threatened both me and my family. We can't allow that anymore."

Despite her experience, Ghoogasian is no shrinking violet. With a booming voice that belies her small stature, she forces councilors and visiting reporters to listen to what she has to say.

She first heard of the council when a US loudspeaker truck rolled through the neighborhood last May announcing the plan. The assertive Ghoogasian attended the initial meeting and was one of three women chosen, named as chair of its health and women's committees.

Since then, she's thrown herself into the task on an almost full-time basis, as have most of the members of the council. The biggest part of the job has been to convince a skeptical public that they actually have the ability to make change. It's been a slow process. She gives high marks to Maynulet and his team. "Most of what we've been able to do has been with great cooperation from Roger,'' she says.

The councils don't have budgets of their own, and so far most of the money available to them has been provided through a US Army program for things like fixing roads, building soccer fields, and getting sewage pumps working again.

If that money dries up, the councils could see what little credibility they've established evaporate with it. "Without funds the councils the neighborhood councils are just coffee clubs,'' says Maynulet.

The Hay Somer council was one of the first in Baghdad to create a rationing system to bring subsidized diesel and kerosene back to the neighborhood. Cooking gas and heating oil, sold at a fraction of their real value by the government, soared in cost as the black market took hold after the US invasion and corrupt officials sold oil products to smugglers.

But few in the neighborhood are aware that the council was responsible for bringing prices back down. "I don't even know where they meet,'' says one elderly man in a tribal headdress in line at a truck distributing kerosene on the street in front of the school that doubles as the council's home.

"If they want to do some important work, they should create jobs for us."

The success story of how the council brought kerosene back to Hay Somer, and Maynulet's central role, also highlights the vulnerability of progress.

Working with the Army, the council went door to door distributing ration cards, and then cut a distribution deal with a trusted local man.

The councilors then visited the oil depot to explain that they'd authorized the man to become their kerosene distributor but were sent packing by the manager, who dismissed them "as not having any real authority,'' according to Abdel Rahim, the deputy head of Hay Somer's council.

The cavalry arrives

The council then called in the big guns, convincing Maynulet and his men to visit the depot. "Once they realized the council was working with the coalition forces, they realized they shouldn't give them a hard time because if they do, we're going to pay a visit again and force them to do their job,'' says Maynulet.

The flip side to this is that there will soon be fewer US troops on the ground to make those sorts of visits.

Maynulet is already spending less time at his council, as are his counterparts all over Iraq. In their absence, councilors worry that the authority they've been able to wield through their military patrons will fade.

"Who's going to make the ministries listen to us?'' asks Ghoogasian. "As of now, they will hardly let me into their buildings to talk about what we need."

There are sharp differences between Hay Somer and Sheikh Maruf, a neighborhood four miles south and along the eastern bank of the Tigris River, but is in many respects a world away. Here, household trash and Pepsi cans line the gutters along the pitted roads, and unemployment is estimated at 40 percent.

Average incomes and educations are lower than in Hay Somer, creating extra challenges for the council. While Hay Somer's council meets in its well-appointed school, the Sheikh Maruf council home is a tiny concrete shed across from the local football stadium.

Whereas Hay Somer's members immediately understood the value of good relations with the US military, the people of Sheikh Maruf have been more wary.

A fight against red tape

But one experience that mirrors Hay Somer is the near impossibility the councilors are having in getting the national bureaucracy to listen to them.

"The people in the government don't have any respect for us - just the other day a representative from the Ministry of Education came to tell us we didn't have the right to inspect our neighborhood schools," says Khadim al-Fukeki, a 32-year old councilor with the abundant energy and unflappable smile of a born politician. "It's hard to make it work the way it would in an American county. All the officials here want to do is protect their own positions, and we can't fire them." Ministry of Education officials were not available for comment.

Mr. Fukeki is working part time as an employee of the Baghdad city council while he finishes an arts degree in theater direction, and says he felt hunted under the old regime. His uncle was executed for participating in a failed attempt on Hussein's life in 1982 and his father was fired from his railway job.

"The Mukhabarat [secret police] came to our house to interrogate and harass my father every week,'' says Fukeki. The climate of fear hasn't entirely dissipated. Fukeki says he's received threatening phone calls accusing him of being a "collaborator" with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the umbrella for the US administration here.

But he says his biggest battle now is getting anyone to listen, or to care, about his position as a councilor.

At their weekly meeting, Sheikh Maruf's councilors - an all-male group until the US military insisted they appoint at least one woman - recite a litany of insults from government offices to Capt. Reggie Miller, a ramrod straight officer who is "their" soldier.

It's a different atmosphere from across town, with Captain Miller's security detachment forming a wide perimeter around the shed and not letting anyone past without being frisked and showing proper identification.

Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the council chairman, complains that the military isn't doing enough to solve the local oil shortage and suggests that money be provided so that they can build their own community oil depot. "We sent out people to the central warehouse and they were almost beaten up."

Another councilor complains that he's been stonewalled by the health ministry when he's gone to inquire about getting medicines delivered to a local clinic. Miller sits in the middle of the room with the councilors in a loose circle around him, while he and an assistant scribble down all of the complaints.

Sheikh Hussein, one of the community's religious leaders, says the problems are costing the coalition support. "We must be honest, the people on the street here say America is inventing the oil crisis, just the way Saddam did, to put people in a maze; so consumed with meeting their needs that they don't think about politics." When Harris reminds the council that new candidates for an empty seat should be carefully vetted, Sheikh Hussein grows impatient. "But doesn't this clash with democracy? Shouldn't everyone have the right to nominate themselves?"

Fukeki's walking tour

On a Friday morning a few weeks later - Iraq's weekend - Fukeki makes his way through crowded streets of playing children and makeshift grocery stands flying the flag for the local council.

Fukeki greets male friends in the traditional style (three kisses on the cheek) and shakes hands with others who have never seen them before. Haider Abbas Rashid, standing at his small stall feeding handfuls of alfalfa to a lamb that is scheduled to be slaughtered on Idul Adha, the day of sacrifice that falls this year on Feb. 1, tells him he hasn't even heard of the council. Another man selling socks out of a bag rushes up to complain that he was unfairly dismissed from a job at the Ministry of Education.

Fukeki tells him he'll do what he can, but says he doesn't have a lot of pull with the government. Fukeki's smile transforms into a worried frown as he jots down the details of the man's problem, and as the man walks away says he sometimes feels overwhelmed by an impossible task.

"Making this work is going to take a lot of time - but the people don't have any patience. They're frustrated and don't understand our limits."

Fukeki stops in at a dingy cafe with a few other friends and councilors to drink sweet tea and talk politics. Much of the talk revolves around the gap between people's expectations and their own power. Shakar Jafar, a burly mechanic who serves on the council, tells Fukeki that another council member who teaches at a high-school in another neighborhood has been told by his boss at the Ministry of Education that he could lose his job if he doesn't stop devoting so much time to council business.

"They mistrust the council,'' he says. Then talk turns to the recent battle over who should get the $100-a-month jobs guarding a neighborhood building owned by the education ministry.

With funds provided by the coalition, the council had hired 30 local men for the job, but a few weeks ago the coalition shifted control of the funds over to the ministry.

The men were promptly fired and replaced with supporters of the Dawa Party, which is represented on the US governing council for Iraq. "They brought in these people from outside the neighborhood because they're trying to build up their power base,'' says Fukeki, who adds that after the council asked the US military to intervene the original men were restored to their jobs.

"The American soldiers are the only connection, the only influence that we have,'' says Jafar. "I think Captain Harris is trying to help us, but the CPA isn't doing anything to give us real power."

The cafe itself is a measure of the gap between what Iraqis have come to expect from their government and what it can actually deliver. It was known as the Baath Cafe until the US invasion, but has since been renamed Al Rahim Casino (though it's free of gambling) by its owner Uday Mohammed, who comes over to chat.

"The regime was very bad, but back in the early 1980s they gave us a free television,'' he says, lamenting that it broke down long ago and he can't afford to replace it. "I'd really like it if the Americans would give us a new one. Do you think they will?"

Who's who
Hay Somer council

Based in a middle-class, half-Christian neighborhood of Baghdad.

Gulizar Panous Ghoogasian: An Assyrian Christian council member and mother of two who was forced to quit her job in the early 1990s after refusing to join the Baath Party.

Capt. Roger Maynulet: The US soldier assigned to the Hay Somer council.

Sheikh Maruf council

Based in a relatively poor, mostly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.

Khadim al-Fukeki: A council member who is working part-time while he finishes an arts degree, and whose family fell on hard times after an uncle was involved in an assassination plot against Saddam Hussein.

Capt. Reggie Miller: The US soldier assigned to the Sheikh Maruf council.

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