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Coaching Iraq's New Candidates, Discreetly

U.S.-Funded Programs Nurture Voting Process

By Karl Vick and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The midwives of democracy toil behind the towering gray blast walls that encase every Western enterprise in the new Iraq. This one, in an anonymous cluster of buildings, houses the country's first school for political candidates.

There is a miniature television studio, where novice office-seekers learn the fine art of the sound bite and the value of "earned media." There are conference rooms, where instructors from countries that have already left war behind conduct seminars on "Six Steps to Planning and Winning a Campaign." (Step 3: Targeting the Voters).

Campaign posters for various parties cover a wall in Baghdad. Iraqis are to choose a National Assembly and provincial officials in voting on Sunday. (Khalid Mohammed -- AP)

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A graphic artist stands by with advice on getting a party's poster noticed on the cluttered streets of Baghdad. A former congressional staffer stands by to emphasize the vital difference between an army of volunteers and an armed militia.

And on the rooftops of nearby buildings, snipers simply stand by, their vigil as discreet as the low-profile democracy-building effort underway below.

Funded by U.S. taxpayers, the Baghdad office of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs stands at the ambitious heart of the American effort to make Iraq a model democracy in the Arab world. In the 13 months it has operated in the country, the institute has tutored political aspirants from all of Iraq's major parties, trained about 10,000 domestic election observers and nurtured thousands of ordinary citizens seeking to build the institutions that form the backbone of free societies.

The work is in many ways entirely routine for the institute -- as it is for the two other Washington-based organizations that are here advising on the architecture of democracy: the International Republican Institute (IRI), which declined requests for an interview, and the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), which along with the United Nations is providing crucial technical assistance to Iraq's electoral commission. The groups work in scores of countries, from those in Eastern Europe to Yemen and Indonesia, and arrived in Baghdad with solid reputations for encouraging democratic norms. Together, the three have been allotted as much as $90 million for their work in Iraq.

But such is the state of Iraq less than a week before elections for the National Assembly that the Democratic Institute's instructors dare not see their names in print. "You can say, 'an official with an international organization that operates in Iraq,' " said the institute's country director, a former political operative and public relations executive who, like his boss, happens to be Canadian. He later agreed to allow the use of the organization's name.

The overriding concern is security. In Iraq, schools are being bombed simply because they might be pressed into service as polling stations Sunday. No sane group intimately involved in mounting the vote dares wave from atop its blast walls.

But there are other good reasons for a certain discretion in Iraq.

"If you walk into a coffee shop and say, 'Hi, I'm from an American organization and I'm here to help you,' that's not going to help," said one instructor, who was born in Iraq and is well versed in the region's widely held perception of U.S. hegemony. "If you say you're here to encourage democracy, they say you're here to control the Middle East."

Almost two years after the invasion that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, public opinion polls -- including several commissioned by IRI -- indicate that growing majorities view the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as a force of occupation, not liberation. The longer the American soldiers stay, the more Iraqis say they want them to leave.

Staff members at the Democratic Institute said they understood the skepticism -- and how to overcome it. It helps that Americans account for only one-third of the institute trainers. Instructors from Brazil, France, Ecuador, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq and other countries make up the majority of foreign staff, and the local staff of 60-plus Iraqis is three times as large.

"We don't look like the face of American foreign policy," said one instructor.

Moreover, the well-funded American democracy programs are the only game in town.

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