BAGHDAD — On a bright afternoon in Baghdad's brief spring, all looks well for the Hay Somer neighborhood council. Four local soccer clubs have gathered at the playground of the freshly painted school that doubles as the council's home to receive free uniforms bought by the council and paid for by the US military.
The street out front is immaculate - a rarity for a city where many basic services have yet to be restored - and there are cheers for the guest of honor, former national soccer coach Imman- uel Baba Dano, an Assyrian Christian who's a particular hero in this neighborhood, which is about half Christian.
But the peace and progress on the surface in Somer, one of the Baghdad neighborhoods most comfortable with US occupation and home to one of Iraq's most successful local councils, conceal big problems for the grass-roots institutions that US officials had hoped would be the building blocks for an unprecedented democratic culture inside Iraq.
A second look at two Iraqi councils the Monitor first wrote about at the end of January - Somer and a second council in the poorer Baghdad neighborhood of Sheikh Maruf - finds them, if anything, struggling for legitimacy against the tide of violence and political instability that has been sweeping Iraq.
"We're trying to do everything we can,'' says Abdel Rahim, the energetic and bald-pated former Iraqi army colonel who is one of the driving forces on the Somer council. "But we have limited funds and almost no formal authority. And there's been no progress on security.
Without security, we have nothing."
The councils were originally envisioned by the US as democratic training wheels, a first taste of political participation for ordinary Iraqis. Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, speaking up about even seemingly innocuous neighborhood matters like schooling was dangerous, and citizens were conditioned to accept passively whatever the regime offered, for good or ill.
When they started, US soldiers led the meetings, and council members seemed uncertain of their roles. But over time, the councils have been encouraged to get involved in decisions that affect their lives - be they building health clinics, providing subsidized cooking fuel or setting up US-style neighborhood watches against crime - and some progress has been made. Councilors across Iraq have taken more initiative while their US facilitators have grown more passive by design.
But in recent months, the pendulum has swung back toward more active US involvement, driven by the growing dangers of political organization inside Iraq.
Councilors across the country have been assassinated. An official at the Baghdad City Council says 52 neighborhood and district councilors have been killed since the middle of last year - among them Mohammed Munther, a Sheikh Maruf councilor who was gunned down outside his small shop in mid-February. The uprising led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, which began at the start of April, caused many neighborhood councils in Baghdad to briefly suspend operations.
Somer's council worked through most of it, though its home was covered in insulting graffiti by Sadr militiamen and the police station narrowly escaped an attack in April, when a rocket-propelled grenade misfired, killing the attacker.
The Tissa Nissan district council, which represents Somer, was closed for most of April after its building was hit by an RPG. Even when not touched by violence, neighborhood councilors have continued to struggle for power in a system that has left them with only an advisory role.
Successful councils like Somer's get things done because of the muscle the US military gives to their requests, not because of any authority of their own.
By now, the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Research Triangle Institute of Durham, N.C., which has a contract worth up to $460 million to help build "local governance," including the local councils, had hoped the councils would be getting things done on their own.
But when US soldiers are tied up fighting, the councilors don't have the muscle to get government ministries and local police to listen, and are largely left with symbolic gestures like handing out free uniforms in an effort to build good will.
"Our problem is that we always have to appeal to higher authorities,'' says Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, a tribal leader and head of Sheikh Maruf's council. "We haven't succeeded as real representatives of the people because we don't have real power."
Iraq's government institutions, up to and including the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, sit in a framework not unlike that of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party: extremely centralized, with government ministries in Baghdad controlling most of Iraq's public spending.
Decisions on who serves on police forces and who teaches in schools lie in the hands of US appointees in the center, with the councils largely cut out of the public process. That looks likely to prevail after the scheduled June 30 return of sovereignty to Iraqis. Appointed Iraqi officials have shown little inclination to devolve authority to local representatives, and the US has put rules in place that will give US officials effective veto power over many public policies. The US will be in control of the military and police forces after the handover, for instance, and US advisers inside many ministries will retain the right to approve domestic policies.
Capt. John Meredith, the chief US military liaison to Somer, who's been in Iraq for just six weeks, understands the fragility of the situation. Handing out uniforms, he manages a smile and a handshake for the young men, but he seems distracted and a little frazzled, as do the three soldiers he has tensely scanning the low rooftops during the ceremony.
Later he apologetically explains why. Just a few hours earlier and a few miles north, he and his men were engaged in a firefight at an abandoned building. One of his men was killed. "They had a sniper up there,'' says Meredith. "He was real good."
Shaking his head at the "most bizarre day of my life,'' with a blinding shift from fighting to an offer to form a US military soccer team to take on Somer's stars, Meredith says he still has hope for the councils if the US can stay the course.
But at a council meeting in a school on April 30, a local problem underscores the vulnerability of their power, reliant as it is on almost constant military assistance.
In the small space that doubles as the conference room for the principal, 11 of 12 councilors gather for their weekly meeting, presenting an amazing cross-section of society, from Yassin, a bearded Sunni sheikh in a traditional robe, to Gulizar Ghoogasian, an Assyrian Christian mother of two whose voice demands she be heard.
Most of the meeting consists of complaints and appeals to Meredith. Fish-mongers are cleaning their fish along a major road, leaving guts and a stench behind. "The fish sellers will be dealt with,'' he promises. Rahim complains that the district council, which oversees the Somer council, has lost credibility because it closed during the April violence. He wants its leaders replaced, though Meredith remains silent at this request.
But a big issue is the pedestrian bridge. The main police station lies along a busy road. A pedestrian bridge across the road is right in front of the police station.
In April, the police closed the bridge, worried that insurgents could use it as a vantage point to fire into their compound. Schoolchildren and shoppers were forced to scurry across the road, dodging traffic, as the police remained for the most part inside their fortified compound.
"This is one of our biggest problems: The police refuse to take an active role,'' says Mr. Rahim. He tells Meredith that the police have ignored the council request to reopen the bridge, and that a woman and her child were killed crossing the street the week before. "They could station cops with weapons on the bridge if they're worried about their own safety," says Rahim. "But they've been ignoring us."
Mr. Rahim points out the council has no power to compel compliance from the police, who answer to the US and the Ministry of Interior, which is led by a man appointed by the US and the Iraqi Governing Council. Meredith promises he'll have a word with the police commander.
Later, Rahim explains why the Somer council has been a star, arranging garbage pickup, organizing vaccination clinics, and lobbying the US-led coalition for help.
"Other councils don't know how to talk to the coalition - to be proactive and specific about their needs,'' a process that has been helped by Somer's relatively high levels of income and education. But he concedes that success remains contingent on a form of benevolent patronage, and worries about life after June 30. "Who knows what happens once we lose this link?"
Meredith says the US is well aware of the challenge. "The ministries need to start listening to the people,'' he says.
In Sheikh Maruf, the challenges are starker. A council meeting in this poorer, largely Shiite neighborhood in early May, its first in two weeks, is filled with complaints about their lack of authority, and grumbling from some members that the risks of membership are beginning to outweigh any benefits to the community.
The council sits in a two-room building just outside the heavily fortified police compound. One of the key complaints to Capt. Scott Holden, in charge of relations with Sheikh Maruf, is that the council doesn't have sufficient oversight and control of contracting. Councilman Rubaie and others complain that groups appointed by the CPA to renovate schools are doing a poor job. Sheikh Hussein, the chairman, says security guards appointed by the council to protect government buildings have stopped receiving payments since control of the funds was passed from the US military to the Iraqi interior ministry.
Hussein says no payments were made in March or April to the 100 or so armed guards, that he doesn't trust the Iraqis now in charge of the money, and he wants the US military to take back control.
"The money is now supposed to be in the ministries' hands,'' explains Captain Holden, saying the CPA wanted to reduce the US role in day-to-day governance. "I know this doesn't put food on those families' tables,'' says a slightly frustrated Holden. "We'll see what we can do."
Shakar Jaffar, a local mechanic, complains that he hasn't been able to get a weapons permit from the coalition. "Who's going to protect us?'' he asks. "There are a lot of people who claim we're spies for the Americans because we're on the council. Other people are angry because we can't seem to get anything done."
Councilor Abdul Sattar al-Rubaie points to a garbage problem, likely to turn from an eyesore to a public-health issue as summer arrives, as an example of the bind they're in. He says pickup is infrequent; in April, 25 days elapsed without a visit. "We went to the municipal government and they told us to talk to the driver for our route. We went to him, and he basically told us to get lost,'' says Rubaie. "We're becoming an embarrassment."
Mr. Rubaie, a high school teacher, says his experience has convinced him that the councils "are in a crisis" and that their failure to provide security, jobs, and services like garbage pickup has cost them public support. "The ministries treat us like we're obstacles, the Americans haven't given us real power, and people are whispering that we're spies. I don't know why I'm involved anymore."
• Second in an occasional series. The first ran Jan. 30, 2004.