PROMISES UNKEPT : The U.S. Occupation of Iraq
Death Stalks An Experiment In Democracy
Fearful Baghdad Council Keeps Public Locked Out
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page A01
Last of three articles
BAGHDAD -- The weekly meeting of the Rashid district council began last Wednesday with a prayer for two of the group's 33 members. One was in critical condition at a U.S. military hospital after being shot seven times in an assassination attempt. Another was in hiding after gunmen attacked her house and killed her brother.
"Let us remember our martyrs," Sami Ahmed Sharif, the council chairman, intoned as his fellow members stood, turned their palms to the ceiling and bowed their heads.
There were no other residents of the Rashid district to observe the moment of silence or the rest of the proceedings. Council members voted to close the meeting to the public because of fears that assassins would slip in and mark members for death. To enforce the decision, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers surrounded the council building and stationed snipers on the roof.
The nascent political institutions designed to replace the U.S. administration of Iraq are beset by challenges to their popular legitimacy and effectiveness, and by grave risks to Iraqis who have joined the experiment in representative government. As Iraqis prepare for their country to regain sovereignty, it is uncertain how much their political future will be shaped by the $700 million program in democracy-building that has been at the core of the U.S. occupation.
Inside the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which will dissolve with the handover on June 30, some officials express doubts that Iraq's political system will conform to the American blueprints. "Will this develop the way we hope it will?" a CPA official involved in promoting democracy said. "Probably not."
New political institutions to replace Saddam Hussein's Baath Party dictatorship are among the chief legacies of the U.S. occupation. Every city and province has a local council. New mayors, provincial governors and national cabinet ministers have been chosen. The Shiite Muslim majority, shut out of power in Hussein's government, is widely represented, as are religious minorities and women. Hundreds of political parties have formed, and thousands of people have participated in seminars on democracy.
But Iraqis criticize the local councils and the interim national government as illegitimate because their members were not elected. The country's top Shiite cleric has repudiated the interim constitution drafted by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. In several recent meetings about the country's political future, Iraqis who favor a Western-style democracy have been drowned out by calls for a system governed by Islamic law.
The cabinet, appointed by a U.N. envoy three weeks ago, has had little time to prepare to govern. Local councils, whose authority had been restricted for months by U.S. military commanders, are also stepping into uncharted areas, uncertain about their responsibilities and powers under a system whose inauguration is a week away.
Yet these uncertainties are overshadowed by the imminent threat of violence. Local council members who once welcomed constituents into their homes now keep armed guards at the front gate. Leaders of the national government travel in armored vehicles and work inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, an area off-limits to ordinary Iraqis. Many foreign contractors hired by the U.S. government to promote democracy have either relocated to Kuwait or hunkered down in protected compounds.
Despite those precautions, more than 100 Iraqi government officials have been killed during the occupation, including two members of the Governing Council. Over the past two weeks, the deputy foreign minister and a senior official in the Education Ministry have been assassinated. On Sunday, masked gunmen shot and killed the council chairman of Baghdad's Rusafa district and his deputy as they sat in a cafe.
Teaching Iraqis about democracy has also been risky. Scott Erwin, a 22-year-old CPA staff member, was critically wounded in an ambush this month as he drove away from a Baghdad university where he was teaching a class on democracy. Two CPA employees who worked on civic education initiatives, Fern Holland and Robert Zangas, were shot to death in March near the city of Hilla.
"Iraq may get to a semi-democratic outcome. But the more-democratic outcomes that were possible a year ago are much more difficult to imagine now because of the security situation," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who worked on democracy issues for the CPA before leaving Iraq this spring, in part because of concerns about safety. "This is the biggest tragedy of Iraq."
The Central Mission
The transformation of Iraq from dictatorship to democracy was the central mission of the CPA. Everything else -- the efforts to rebuild infrastructure, train police, revise the school curriculum -- was aimed at building a democratic government that would be a model for the rest of the Middle East.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company