First, US soldiers helped select representatives to work in the district council building. Then supporters of a radical Shiite cleric kicked them out and installed a rival council. Today, the Sadr City council building stands empty. Two American tanks and yards of concertina wire seal this experiment in Iraqi self-rule off from more controversy, which resulted in one council meeting in private, and another being arrested and disbanded by coalition forces.
Six months into the occupation, the effort to give more power to Iraqis through coalition-sponsored advisory councils is running into a legitimacy problem. A recent poll found more than half of Iraqis don't know the councils exist.
And since none of the dozens of district and local councils installed under the coalition were elected, they're easy to challenge, something eloquently attested to by the tanks in Sadr City, a teeming warren of shacks that's home to 2 million of Baghdad's 6 million people, and is the largest district in the capital.
"The Americans ran this process; we didn't even know they were going to be selecting a council,'' says Naim al-Kabi, an engineer and chairman of the rival council, which was set up with the help of anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "So that's why the people of Sadr City rejected them and elected us."
His position is rejected by the coalition. Maj. Aaron Marler, a political officer with the 2nd Armored Cavalry who has worked with the US-sponsored council says intimidation, not elections, played a role in the creation of the second council.
"In order to have free and fair elections, you can't have undue influence from any group,'' says Major Marler. He says the process to select the first council was fair. "Some people didn't participate in the process, but that was their choice. We will deal with dialogue and input from anyone. But we what won't deal with is threats."
Members of the original council say they're too scared to return to work. Many Iraqis working with the coalition fear assassination; Faris Abdul-Razak, the secretary of the Baghdad City government, was killed on Sunday.
For now, the original council meets at members' homes or at the heavily guarded Baghdad city council building. In early October, they were chased from their Sadr City building following a 10,000-strong protest by Mr. Sadr's supporters. Sadr leads a militia that has fatally clashed with US troops and supporters of rival clerics. Sadr's involvement is a complicating factor, as is the anger within Sadr City, where the overwhelmingly Shiite population suffered more than most under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-controlled government.
The area was called Saddam City until after the fall of Baghdad, when it was renamed for Sadr's father, Mohammad, a deeply loved cleric killed by Hussein in 1999. Sadr the younger has attacked coalition political efforts as illegitimate and favors the creation of an Iranian-style theocracy here.
Sadr City has been the most troubling of the nine districts in Baghdad. But it would be an oversimplification to suggest the younger Sadr is the whole problem. Two days spent there speaking to dozens of local residents yielded this simple fact: Most didn't participate in the selection of either council.
That's not surprising. More than 30 years of single-party rule has left Iraq with no democratic infrastructure: Electoral rolls and democratic procedures simply don't exist.
"We totally reject the council the Americans helped create,'' says Hussein D'eiyin al-Alawi, the head of the Sadr City branch of the Dawa Party, a Shiite political group that was outlawed under Hussein. Mr. Alawi says he resents the use of soldiers in the political process, since it is reminiscent of the way Hussein dealt with the Shiites. "If they'd sent civilians to talk to me, I'd be more willing to listen."
After the fall of Hussein, the US military tried to make the council process inclusive. Using loudspeakers mounted on armored cars, it invited residents to attend meetings to select representatives to 88 Baghdad neighborhood councils, which in turn selected district level councils and one for the city.
But the method of getting the word out was far from perfect. "No one told me anything about an election - I defy anyone to say they voted,'' says Amir Hashim, an unemployed laborer waiting for a bus on a pitted roadside, the air pungent from an open sewer. "I think that until we can have proper elections, the Hawza should run things."
The Hawza is the panel of Shiite religious scholars based around the shrine city of Najaf, and issue religious rulings on how Iraqi Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, should live their lives. But determining just what the Hawza want is a tricky business. Ali Hussein al-Sistani, probably Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, has stayed mostly silent on political matters.
Absent any assistance from the Hawza on the issue of Sadr City's rival councils, US officials spent two weeks negotiating with the insurgent group. While the occupation of the council building persisted, the coalition suspended redevelopment programs that were being channeled through the body.
Finally, the tanks were brought into action on Oct.16, at the urging of the original council. US soldiers and local Iraqi police forced the self-appointed council out of the building and arrested 12 of its members.
"The Sadr bureau people have been making people suffer,'' says Siham Hittab, a professor of English literature and one of the few women elected to the first council (there are no women on the council that Sadr sponsored). "We are the people's legitimate representatives, and we've been bringing them aid and medicine. The Sadr people stopped that."
Ms. Hittab, who teaches James Joyce at Baghdad University, says developing the skills to make democracy work will take time. She compares the process to working with students on Joyce's famously impenetrable texts.
"We need time. This is a new life, and every day we're learning something new. Frankly, it's easier teaching 'Portrait of the Artist' than getting everyone to understand what we're doing."