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Iraq's neighborhood councils are vanishing

After their members were killed, many councils were scared out of existence.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2005


As leader of both his district and neighborhood councils, retired Iraqi Army Col. Abdel Rahim saw himself as a warrior on the front lines of democracy. He braved intimidation and corruption to share in the American dream of transforming Iraq.

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But on one August morning his dream came to an end. As he pulled away from his home, a white sedan screeched to a halt on his front bumper. A van blocked his rear. Four gunmen pumped his car full of bullets. Six rounds hit Colonel Rahim.

Rahim, a bald sparkplug of a man, was one of four members of Baghdad's Hay Somer neighborhood council killed in a two-week period last year. The council was one of the last holdouts of the dozens of local councils in Baghdad the US set up in 2003 as Iraq's first experiment in representative government for generations.

Two councils the Monitor has tracked since late 2004 - in middle-class Hay Somer and the poor Shiite neighborhood of Sheikh Maruf - no longer exist, and many of their former members are in hiding. The fate of the councils provides grim evidence of how difficult it is for democracy to take root in Iraq.

Hundreds of neighborhood councils, now a dead letter as the elite politicians who won seats in Iraq's national election squabble over the spoils, were set up across Iraq in 2003 by the US military and the Research Triangle Institute, based near Raleigh, N.C., was given a contract with up to $460 million to build local governance. The idea was to prime the pump of citizen participation and create a new culture that would make democracy work for citizens in a tangible way. But nearly two years later, the money and effort has yielded few visible gains.

Iraq's diverse and decentralized insurgency has turned its focus from US forces toward the easy targets provided by Iraq's front-line politicians, police officers, and new soldiers. Hundreds of low-level councilors have been killed, scaring local councils out of existence in at least a dozen of Iraqi towns.

An official at the Research Triangle Institute says that councils still exist and are active in safer regions of Iraq, while others in the areas where insurgents have been most active may exist in name only.

THE Sheikh Maruf council fared a little better, with only one councilor, Mohammed Munthur Kadoori, killed, mostly because its members decided to disband shortly after his murder. The brother of another councilor, Shaker Jaffar, was also killed.

Khadim al-Fukeki, a Maruf councilor and a true believer in the process, says he doesn't regret involvement in the failed experiment. "I don't blame the Americans for this - they weren't the ones sending us the threatening letters, or who have turned the neighborhood into a killing zone,'' says Mr. Fukeki. "That's the fault of the Wahabbis, the extremists."

"Rahim believed in this with all his heart,'' says Zaid Khalaf, one of Rahim's six surviving brothers and also a former member of the Hay Somer council. "When Saddam fell, Rahim had a chance to leave Iraq and open a business in the Gulf. But he said he wanted to stay and do great things, things that people would talk about and thank him for."

In a series of interviews with the Monitor last year, Rahim's optimism never wavered, but he grew increasingly disillusioned, or perhaps realistic, about the help the US could provide. Anonymous death threats were mounting, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to budge Iraq's resurgent bureaucracy.

"We're trying to do everything we can,'' Rahim said in May. "But we have limited funds and almost no formal authority. And there's been no progress on security. Without security, we have nothing."