By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 8, 2009
BAGHDAD -- Weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, as parts of the capital were still smoldering, American soldiers and diplomats turned to men like Hassan Shama and Omar Rahman Rahmani in their quest to plant the seeds of representative democracy.
In Baghdad, Iraq's capital, they held impromptu neighborhood caucuses to appoint district and neighborhood advisory councils. The local government bodies were given no official charter, lawmaking power or public budget. In the years that followed, as the capital became a bloody battleground and the country descended into near-anarchy, council members were among the U.S. military's staunchest allies. They provided information about extremists, offered insight into Iraqi society and gave American-imposed security measures a veneer of Iraqi legitimacy.
As U.S. troops have sharply disengaged from Baghdad in recent months, local representatives say they are feeling powerless and abandoned. The Iraqi government has taken no steps to hold elections for the councils, and the Baghdad provincial council is culling them of members it deems unqualified or unfit for service.
The looming demise of the local councils -- at least as the Americans established them -- is an ominous sign of the brand of democracy that is likely to reign in Iraq as the Americans depart, council members say. They worry that constituents will no longer have grass-roots representation and that power will become far more centralized in the hands of a few.
Council members, who in recent years became top targets of insurgents, are among a growing number of Iraqis who feel that the impending American pullout will leave them exposed and helpless.
"I never expected we'd come to this point," said Shama, the head of the Sadr City District Council. "The U.S. Army and the U.S. Embassy have abandoned us. After six years of very hard work, we're worthless. They call us agents, spies for the Americans."Security 'Is Not Stable'
The U.S. military withdrawal began in earnest in June, as American troops were ordered to pull out of cities as part of a security agreement with Iraq. The troops who remain in urban areas are tasked almost exclusively with training Iraqi forces. Although departing American units are leaving behind a country that is drastically safer than at the height of the fighting, many Iraqis who worked closely with them say they fear the withdrawal will unleash a new bloody fight for power.
Nadam Naim, another member of the Sadr City council, said her days as a public servant are numbered. The petite woman, who lives in the northern portion of the vast Shiite district, never leaves home without a handgun given to her by the previous U.S. brigade commander responsible for Sadr City.
"The security situation is not stable," she said in a whispered interview after a recent council meeting during which much was discussed but little was accomplished. "If the Americans leave, I will ask for refugee status. Even if I don't get refugee status, surely I can't stay here. I have many enemies because I work with" Americans.
The nine district and more than 100 neighborhood advisory councils were formed hastily at a time when the Iraqi government and its security forces were dismantled or paralyzed.
Rahmani, a British-educated Iraqi living in western Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood, found work as an interpreter for U.S. forces and was soon tapped for a position on the district's council.
"We didn't have the perfect democracy," he said. "There was no media, no electricity. But I said to myself: I don't care if I have to cooperate with the devil. I have to rebuild my country."
Over the next six years, U.S. military officials attended district and neighborhood advisory councils regularly. They solicited input from council members when doling out billions of dollars in reconstruction funds. U.S. commanders made them the headliners at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects funded and overseen by Americans.
Council members gave U.S. soldiers a window into the shifting dynamics in Baghdad neighborhoods, many of which became besieged by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
In predominantly Sunni neighborhoods such as Adhamiyah, which in recent years have been largely neglected by the Shiite-led provincial and national governments, U.S. commanders served as advocates and intermediaries, bringing in municipal and ministry officials to tackle problems identified by council members.
"They used to come to our meetings, and they had all the power in their hands," Rahmani said. "Now we don't have any power."
Rahmani visited the Bush White House last year as part of a delegation of local Iraqi politicians. When he got his turn to shake George W. Bush's hand, he said, he told the president that democracy in Iraq was not taking root.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and the Baghdad provincial council, also led by Shiites, seemed uninterested in working with the local councils, Rahmani said he told Bush.
"Every party is working in Saddam's shadow," Rahmani said, referring to ousted president Saddam Hussein. "Everyone wants to be a Saddam. Everyone wants power in their own hands."Disbanding the Councils
The district and advisory councils nominally fall under the Baghdad provincial council, whose president in recent months has taken steps to disband some of the councils and ordered a review to determine how many members are unqualified.
Kamil al-Zaidi, the president of the provincial council, said the local councils suffered from a lack of talent because most qualified residents had fled the country ahead of the war. "They were formed in a rush after the collapse of the regime," he said in an interview.
Many of the members handpicked by the Americans aren't educated and have full-time jobs outside their council duties, said Zaidi, who belongs to Maliki's political slate, known as State of Law.
U.S. officials say they haven't abandoned the council members.
"I'm going to remain involved with our Iraqi partners," said Col. Tobin L. Green, the brigade commander responsible for Sadr City. "If the Iraqis want to change the local government structure, they will."
A senior American diplomat who has worked with several councils said some members have expressed disappointment as the U.S. military has disengaged from local politics in Baghdad.
"My walking into a room will no longer represent a possible assistance project," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as is standard for most interviews with U.S. diplomats. "It would have been strange for people in Baghdad to think that we would be here indefinitely."
Shama said he wants political asylum in the United States. Sitting behind his wooden desk in the U.S.-rehabilitated council building, he said he has no hope that Iraqi troops will keep the peace when the Americans pull out.
"Right now, the militias are waiting behind the wall," he said. "When they know the U.S. is out of the city, they will come back and eat the Iraqi army alive."
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.