Iraq's neighborhood councils are vanishing
After their members were killed, many councils were scared out of existence.
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Despite his fears, and the insistent pleas of his wife, Rahim just kept plowing ahead, reasoning that as a survivor of the devastating Iran-Iraq War, during which he commanded a tank, he could handle rough and tumble Baghdad politics.Skip to next paragraph
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With Rahim near permanent smile and infectious enthusiasm, it was easy to believe he might be one of the fortunate ones whom the war wouldn't touch.
When he rose to run the Tissa Nissan district council, after many of its original members quit after an attack on their hall last April, he was offered three bodyguards, but rarely used them. "It made him ashamed to move around the neighborhood with them. He'd say to me, 'this is where I'm from - if I'm afraid, what message does that send,'' recalls Mr. Khalaf.
At one point, the neighborhood council was among the most successful in Baghdad. Rahim rallied council members to organize a neighborhood watch, and enlisted US soldiers to browbeat government officials into restarting neighborhood trash pickups and the distribution of cooking fuel and kerosene.
"Other councils don't know how to talk to the coalition - to be proactive and specific about their needs,'' Rahim said in May, explaining Hay Somer's relative success. He was proud to be seen with US soldiers, always making sure they were invited to local soccer games and even Christmas parties (Hay Somer is about half Christian).
Today, the former councilors haven't met with US soldiers for about six months, though a few of them are left around. Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed al-Tikriti, the deputy head of the council, was killed last August with two others.
Fukeki, a member of the Sheikh Maruf council is a recent graduate in theater directing. He says he found his "calling" in local politics, and now works as the secretary for the Baghdad provincial council. He's started wearing a handgun and keeps his work secret from his neighbors, especially since Sheikh Maruf runs along Baghdad's embattled Haifa Street, a warren of low-cost housing that has become a center for Sunni insurgents.
"Sometimes, when the council was working, a resident would come to me with a problem and I'd help sort it out. This was incredibly fulfilling,'' he says. "These are exactly the institutions we need, and I'm still optimistic we can get them, learn about them, as long as the fighting stops."
A rumor in the neighborhood, repeated by Fukeki, is that after Iraq's national election on Jan. 30, Sunni fighters were offering a bounty for pointer-fingers stained purple with the ink used to prevent voting twice. "There are some really savage people around,'' says Fukeki. "We all want them out, but most people feel powerless."
That powerlessness has seen Sheikh Maruf, like Hay Somer, sink backward in the past six months. "The facts are that now basic services are worse, garbage is piling high on the streets again, and people aren't willing to help out anymore. It's just that the situation is so dangerous."
The fear that stalks Baghdad's streets has turned some former councilors bitter.
"The US pulled us into something that we thought was going to make our lives better and then failed to protect us,'' says Khalaf, Rahim's brother. "Some soldiers came to sit and have tea with him the day before he died. But they never came with condolences after he was killed."
Though the murders were never fully investigated, Khalaf and neighbors say they're convinced they were carried out by members of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which was fighting US and Iraqi forces last August. Khalaf says that in mid-September, four Mahdi gunmen were arrested as suspects in Rahim's murder, but were released the next day after a pro-Sadr mob threatened to attack the local police station.