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Preaching the Rule of Law in a Tribal Land

An Iraqi Governor's Challenge: Making Democracy Work

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page A01

BASRA, Iraq -- Mohammed Musabah arrives at work at a different hour every day. Security precautions, the new governor of Basra explained. The political parties in the city that oppose him, some little more than armed gangs, are determined to see him fail. As many as four out of five of his policemen are loyal to his opponents. And in a land blighted by corruption, he wants to be an honest politician.

"In the beginning, for sure, it was too much pressure," he admitted.


Mohammed Musabah has been the governor of Basra for a month.

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Musabah smiled, as is his habit. After a month on the job, he said, he's learning to cope.

As Iraq negotiates the high drama of politics on a national stage, with a parliament preparing to tackle the fundamental questions of a future state -- the role of religion, federalism and women's rights -- Musabah is the point man on the more mundane task of making government actually work. His success in Iraq's second-largest city, scarred by three wars in 25 years and neglected for nearly as long, may go far in ensuring that institutionalized democracy becomes more than a promise in Iraq. His failure could suggest that Iraq's problems are simply greater than his good intentions.

Across a day spent in his office, a tidy room with a fountain in the corner, plush leather furniture and air conditioners on each wall that never stop, Musabah articulated the principles that he envisioned as his legacy: transparency, credibility in the eyes of his constituency and the rule of law in a region of southern Iraq where the word of tribal sheiks and religious clerics holds sway.

With an occasional grimace, he would turn to the job at hand. There were the minor problems: demands for compensation for a clinic seized a decade ago. The intractable: a raging tribal dispute over a death at a wedding party, and disenchanted municipal workers who predict there will be less electricity this summer than last. And the ominous: adversaries who always seem to be plotting.

"There are a lot of difficulties, and we will not hide them from our people," Musabah said, sitting behind his desk.

But, he worried, his opponents "are waiting for me to make mistakes."

The Compromise Choice

At 43, Musabah, a rotund man with a gentle face, is a political novice. Before taking office, he was a businessman and the spokesman for a prominent Islamic group known as the Virtue Party, which fared well in the Jan. 30 local elections in southern Iraq. His party captured 12 of the 41 seats on Basra's provincial council, coming in second behind a coalition of rival Islamic parties that won 20 seats. When that coalition couldn't agree on a candidate for governor, Musabah became the compromise choice.

He fits the image of a technocrat. Two stacks of folders stand a foot high to the side of his desk. His office is bereft of religious symbolism, save for a gold plaque on his desk that reads, "In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate." With a budget of just $23,000 for a city of about 1.5 million, he has few staff. Two of his six brothers are unpaid aides.

In a country where power often translates into bombast, Musabah is quiet, earnest, almost shy. He has no business card, no e-mail. He listens more than he speaks during workdays that last 12 hours, and he punctuates his language with hospitable formalities. "God reward you" is his favorite. Often he says, "At your service" -- the words he delivered to his first guests, a delegation of local journalists.

"We'd like to be the tongue that gives voice to the people," declared Hatim Bajari, the head of the Journalists Union in Basra. "We should not hide anything. We will be the eyes watching over what is good and bad."

Musabah nodded, smiling. "We promised the people we would hide nothing from them," he answered.

Tea was brought in. (By day's end, more than 100 cups would be served.) And in time, the journalists made their requests: money for a new headquarters and an office for a reporter in the provincial headquarters.


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