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Preaching the Rule of Law in a Tribal Land

"It's only been 25 days," Musabah answered. "Just give me a chance."

An Open Door

Of the seismic changes in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, one of the most remarkable is perhaps the people's relationship to power. No longer remote, fortified behind layers of fear and intimidation, power has been demystified. The language in the 20-minute meeting was casual, without the sycophantic overtures once obligatory in even low-level meetings during Hussein's rule.

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

"Our door is open anytime," Musabah told the journalists. "We need the media involved in all issues, large and small."

Another delegation followed from the Ministry of Irrigation. Its members had a complaint about holdovers from Hussein's Baath Party still working as colleagues. They showed the governor a petition that they had also sent to the offices of Islamic parties in Basra, many of which operate shadowy, underground enforcement arms that intimidate, kidnap and sometimes execute perceived enemies.

"Don't do this," the governor told them in a rare flash of anger. "It's a mistake to go outside the law."

The men looked sheepish. "God willing," one answered.

In the streets of Basra and Baghdad, jokes are sometimes made about words that sound as though they were imported with the U.S. invasion -- "pluralism" and "transparency," for instance. Musabah seems to take them seriously.

"The rule of law will reign," he told the delegation, "not the rule of tribes."

In Musabah's office, as in much of Iraq, authority remains an ambiguous concept. What is it based on, the question goes -- God, guns, money or traditions? Musabah has his answer, even while he says he understands his nation's legacy of capricious power and realizes his administration lacks the institutional force needed to back up its authority.

"We will succeed if we support the law," he said after meeting the delegation. "We are a government of law, and that's what I've promised everyone. No one can disobey the law, including me."

He repeated the words, as if to reassure himself: "We are a government of law."

Only a few minutes separated Musabah's meetings on this day. In the intervals, he hurriedly scribbled on the stack of memos before him. When another group entered, he got up from his chair and greeted the visitors warmly.

"Welcome! Welcome!" he said to a delegation of Sabeans, an ancient religious sect found in parts of southern Iraq that is considered protected under Islamic law. "How is your situation? God willing, it's good."

The Sabeans brought him a trunk-size bouquet of flowers and a copy of their holy book, the Treasure, which one of them kissed before handing it to Musabah. "I should visit you," Musabah told them, "you shouldn't have to visit me." They smiled, exchanged more greetings, then got to their point: They feared they would be marginalized under Iraq's new Islamic-oriented leaders.

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