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Archive for Saturday, June 26, 2004

U.S. starving seeds of Iraq democracy

June 26, 2004

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— In the past year, U.S. officials spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to jump-start a culture of liberal democracy in an Islamic country that had never known anything but dictatorship or authoritarian rule.

Call it hubris, call it neo-imperialism, call it chutzpah. But U.S. officials have appointed or approved district and city and provincial councils all over the country, chosen from local assemblies that were sometimes huge, sometimes tiny.

Occupation authorities have held seminars on democracy and funded fledgling nongovernmental organizations. U.S. lawyers have written a temporary constitution that calls for national elections next year.

The question now is how much of this effort will survive the transition to sovereign Iraqi rule.

Iraqi elections will be held. The public wants them despite the ongoing violence. The real issue is whether new ideas about representative government -- such as decentralization and grass-roots power -- have taken root in such a short time.

I put this question to Riyadh Nassir al-Adhadh, a Baghdad city councilor from the restive Adamiyah district, a Sunni stronghold full of unemployed former Baathists. An Iraqi deputy foreign minister was just assassinated in Adamiyah, as were two local councilors. Many councilors from other Baghdad districts have also been killed for "collaborating."

Yet Adhadh, a popular physician with a clinic that serves the poor, chose to take part in this experiment. He told me last October that he wanted to see whether he could help his district through the city council process.

"In spite of the disappointing result so far, we would accept democracy," he told me on my current trip. "There should be control of politics from the base and not from the top." Just the new kind of thinking Iraq needs.

Yet Adhadh fears U.S. officials were never serious about empowering a new breed of politicians. Under Saddam Hussein, the capital was run directly by the central government bureaucracy. A city council with members responsible to local districts presents a whole new concept of representative democracy.

However, a new city charter that gives the council budgetary control was only just drawn up -- and as of last week had not been signed by occupation czar Paul Bremer.

"The central bureaucracy wants its old (budget) powers back," Adhadh said. He fears a new Iraqi interim government might also want to regain full control of Baghdad.

Coalition authorities could have given the city councils more legitimacy before now.

"The city charter should have been ratified by the people," Adhadh said. "Then it would be accepted." Local elections would also have given the council legitimacy.

Yet the Americans rejected early elections, fearful they couldn't control the results. And instead of giving the Baghdad council financial resources, they starved it of cash.

"My district was destroyed by the coalition" during the invasion, said Adhadh. He asked coalition authorities to reimburse some of the damages from the $18 billion in reconstruction funds appropriated by Congress, most of which hasn't been spent yet. "We got no reply," the councilor reported in frustration. "Some educated people understand our work, but others say it is useless because we can't deliver. They accuse us of working for the Americans."

Such frustrations are echoed by Lt. Col. Joe Rice, an Army reservist and former mayor of Glendale, Colo. He advised the Baghdad council for a year, and tried to get more funding. Said Rice: "We hampered (the council) by not giving them enough resources."

Rice brought Adhadh and other councilors to Denver to observe the workings of local city government, but the latter's outspoken criticism of U.S. occupation got him in hot water with U.S. authorities in Baghdad. Certain military commanders wanted to remove Adhadh from the council until Rice persuaded them that such frankness made the doctor credible at home.

There is a lesson here: If U.S. officials want to fertilize buds of democracy, they must accept whatever blooms.

The future of Baghdad City Council, and councilor Adhadh, are test cases for whether the past year's democracy experiments can survive here. I will follow their progress.

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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