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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.

The U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, initially planned to supervise the entire process. He wanted the CPA to oversee the drafting of a constitution and the convening of general elections. Bremer insisted last summer that the United States would relinquish sovereignty only to a stable, independent, democratically elected Iraqi government.

When escalating violence and dissent by Iraqis led the Bush administration to abandon that plan in November and accelerate the handover, Bremer ordered the CPA to advance democratic goals as far as possible by June 30. He promulgated an interim constitution that included a bill of rights and a commitment to hold elections by January. Local councils whose members had been chosen by the military were authorized to select new members through caucuses. Bremer augmented the $30 million set aside by Congress for democracy promotion with another $700 million to fund political parties, nongovernmental organizations and civics programs to advocate such political values as the separation of church and state, women's rights and federalism.

A key component of the U.S. strategy, starting at the beginning of the occupation, was to create effective grass-roots government. When Hussein was in power, governors, mayors and even municipal police chiefs were appointed by Baghdad. The CPA wanted to change that, starting in the capital city.

The CPA's plan for Baghdad envisioned three tiers of local government: a city council, eight district councils and dozens of neighborhood councils. The councils were limited to advising U.S. officials about reconstruction needs in the city. They had neither the power to enact legislation nor budgets for municipal improvements.

Despite calls from Iraqi politicians for the participants to be chosen by popular vote, the CPA deemed municipal elections too risky last summer. They worried that religious extremists and Baathists would manipulate the process. Instead, the CPA asked the Research Triangle Institute, which had a U.S. government contract to promote democracy in Iraq, to organize neighborhood caucuses to select the councils.

Participants in the caucuses were screened by Americans who supervised the entire process. As a result, the councils were filled with people who owed their jobs more to the CPA than to the public. "The community saw us as tools of the Americans," said Ali Aziz, the secretary of the Rashid council. "It was the beginning of our problems."

Nurturing New Leaders

American officials hope local council members, almost all of whom lived in Iraq while Hussein was in power, will emerge as prominent political figures and potential challengers to the clique of national politicians who opposed Hussein from exile.

"The councils have been a very successful experiment in democracy," said Andrew Morrison, a U.S. diplomat who speaks Arabic and has served as the CPA's governance coordinator for Baghdad.

The composition of the Rashid district council would seem to bear out that assessment. The council, responsible for a large swath of Shiite-dominated southern Baghdad, includes several members with doctoral degrees. Others have important tribal and business connections. Four of the 33 members are women.

Despite their aspirations to seek an elective seat in an eventual national parliament, several council members said that the CPA's limits on their authority had kept them from building the respect they needed to earn the trust and respect of their constituents.

"How can we win the support of the people if we have no money?" said Sharif, the council chairman, a voluble real-estate broker who was encouraged to participate in politics by his friends and neighbors. "If we cannot help them, they will not support us."

When not focused on security, the council's meetings are devoted to discussing work they want the Americans to perform, instead of work they can accomplish themselves. Although they will shed their advisory status to the Americans after June 30, members worry that their limited influence could weaken because there will be fewer U.S.-funded projects and they will have no budget of their own. Over the past four months, the CPA has consulted with the council in allocating more than $56 million for public works projects in the district.

Members faulted the CPA for not keeping a commitment to give a large share of power to local officials. The Rashid council has no control over police officers or many other government employees because they report to national ministries.

Morrison said the division of power between national and local officials would be decided when Iraqis write a permanent constitution. "The Iraqis are going to debate this out over the course of the next year," he said. "We tried to give them the building blocks, but it's one area I'm not sure where it's going to come out."

Among the things the Rashid council plans to do after June 30 is assert its independence from its American sponsors. It has politely disinvited U.S. civilian and military officials, who have attended every council meeting so far, from sessions after that date.

Council members said they envisioned a democracy different from what they have read about the United States, suggesting that many of the concepts Americans have been preaching here have not been accepted. For instance, many said that a separation between religion and the state makes little sense in Iraq.

"We can't act this way," insisted Murthada Younis, the deputy chairman. Outside the room in which he was speaking, several photocopied pictures of a deceased Shiite cleric were taped to the wall. "Religion is part of our life and it should be part of government," he said.

Men on the council said they supported allowing women to vote and hold elective office, but several scoffed at the notion of giving women the same personal freedoms they enjoy outside the Arab world. "In the West, women have absolute freedom to do what they want," said Abbas Taie, an X-ray technician who has attended several U.S.-sponsored democracy workshops. "The Iraqi women refuse such kinds of freedom."

Sharif, the Rashid chairman, said one of the most important items before the council after June 30 will be scheduling local elections. "Right now, many people do not think we are legitimate," he said. "That would change if we were elected by the people."

But Sharif said he recognized that holding an election before the end of the year would be impossible because of the security situation. Campaigning for a January national election will be hard enough, he said. Right now, he said, only a fool would attempt to go door to door or hold a community meeting to meet with constituents. "It's far too dangerous," he said.

Asked who he thought his chief rival would be, he did not pause.

"Terrorism," he said.

'We Need Protection'

After the prayer and the approval of the previous week's minutes, the Rashid council got down to work. The first order of business was to hand out military permits to each member allowing them to carry handguns.

"Our lives are in jeopardy," Sharif said as he distributed the laminated cards.

The U.S. Army had given council members .38-caliber pistols for their protection. But the licenses had expired on April 30, exposing members to arrest if they were searched at a military checkpoint. Sharif said he had continued to pack his pistol, as well as carrying two unlicensed AK-47 assault rifles in his car.

"I'm the chairman, but I violate the law so I can protect myself," he said.

For months, the Rashid district council avoided the violence that had plagued other groups. In the district as a whole, five neighborhood council members have been assassinated this year. In Sadr City, a large Shiite slum, the chairman of the district council was killed and strung from a pole. A sign hanging from his neck accused him of being an American spy.

Rashid council members learned to live with threats and close calls. Yacoub Youssef, the chairman of the education committee, said he had received 14 threats, some written and others by telephone, accusing him of collaborating with U.S. forces. Younis, the deputy chairman, said he was almost gunned down on his way to work last month. "We had been very lucky," he said.

This month, the luck ran out. On June 5, gunmen opened fire on council member Ali Ameri, a professor at Baghdad University, as he drove to work, killing two of his bodyguards and leaving him near death. On June 11, assailants sprayed bullets into the house of a colleague, biologist Nisreen Haider, killing her brother and forcing her into seclusion.

"Serving on this council has become very risky," said Adel Fahdil, a contractor. Although Fahdil insisted he was not worried because he had 20 guards, all armed with AK-47s, other members were not as confident. Most cannot afford a large security detail and are forced to rely on one or two relatives with weapons. They have asked for protection, but U.S. officials answered that they did not have the resources to guard more than 1,200 district and neighborhood councilors across the capital.

"We need someone to help us," said council member Majid Mamouri, who said he could not pay for guards with his salary as a professor of veterinary science. "We need bodyguards. We need protection."

At Wednesday's meeting -- held at a former hunting lodge once run by Hussein's son, Qusay -- only 18 of the council's 33 members were in attendance.

Reached in hiding, Haider said in a telephone interview that she had no intention of returning to the council. "I will not work there anymore," she said. "The people do not deserve to be served."

She said she could no longer live in the Rashid district and planned to move elsewhere in Iraq. "They are watching me, and I expect to be killed," she said.

Ideals and Necessities

Despite the threats, some council members said they were uneasy about excluding the public from their meetings.

"We're working in the name of the citizens," said Youssef, who also serves as a senior official in the Education Ministry. "The public should be able to attend even if we're afraid of them. The citizens have a right to hear what we're doing. We should not be having secret meetings."

But Sharif, a trim man with close-cropped hair and large glasses, argued that the safety of the members was more important. "We must protect the council," he said. "This is not ideal but it is necessary."

These days, he said, "we must do what is necessary for democracy, not what is ideal."

Sharif said he expected the threats to abate after June 30, when the occupation ends and the council assumes greater authority in southern Baghdad. He said he hoped residents and the insurgents would change their opinions of the members when they are working without Americans in the room.

"I don't have any trust in the Americans anymore," Younis said. "I trust my nation to achieve democracy despite terrorism. People know what they want."

While the threats and attacks have scared off some members, they have strengthened the resolve of at least a quorum on the council. With the CPA dissolving and U.S. troops assuming a lower profile, they regard themselves as front-line fighters for democracy.

"If we quit now, the terrorists win," said Youssef, who has been threatened 14 times and was shot at on his way to work last month. Each attempt at intimidation, he said, "gives me the strength to be more determined."

Special correspondent Huda Ahmed Lazim contributed to this report.

Adel Fahdil, a member of the Rashid district council in Baghdad, employs 20 armed guards. Two of his colleagues have been attacked by gunmen this month. A closed meeting of the Rashid district council in Baghdad begins with a prayer for two members who were targets of assassination attempts this month. In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, protesters brandishing effigies demand the removal of a governor who was appointed by occupation authorities.