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

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.

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.

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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."

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.

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.

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