Global Policy Forum

Iraqis Taste Democracy


By Yaroslav Trofimov

Wall Street Journal
February 18, 2004

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has said direct elections for a new Iraqi government are impossible in coming months, and a United Nations delegation last week indicated that it holds similar views.

But the outcomes of recent local elections in southern Iraq, where Shiite Muslims predominate, so far have failed to validate U.S. fears that such voting would bring about an Iran-style theocracy -- and possibly incite civil war. "What we've found is that they haven't selected extremists," said Tobin Bradley, political adviser for the CPA's office here.

The experiment with democracy in small towns around Nasiriyah, however, has led to new tensions between Shiite religious movements and occupation officials. Prominent clerics have stepped up demands to hold rapid elections for the Nasiriyah-based provincial administration, whose current members are appointed by the CPA. Thousands of demonstrators demanding such a poll have marched toward the CPA's fortress-like compound, brandishing assault rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, and chanting anti-American slogans; organizers now threaten a civil-disobedience campaign.

"The occupation forces came to this country saying they'll bring democracy -- but now they have become the main obstacle to democracy," said one of the protest organizers, Aws al Khafaji, the regional head of the Sadr Office, one of the main Shiite religious movements in Iraq. Recent elections in places like Battha, a ramshackle town north of Nasiriyah, have only whetted the local appetite for self-rule.

"We have noticed from experience that the local councils that were elected work much better than the appointed ones," said Mohammed al Nassiri, a local leader of the Iraqi Hezbollah, one of many Shiite Islamic parties that sprang up after the war.

The CPA is resisting calls for provincial elections so far, fearing that such a vote here will set a precedent nationwide. Yet officials acknowledge that outcomes at the local level are encouraging. The ballot in Battha was the ninth municipal election across this province in the Shiite heartland. "What you see after elections are councils that are much more secular and younger," said the CPA's Mr. Bradley. "Voters want knowledgeable people who can give them services." Councils created through elections ended up with fewer tribal sheikhs and Islamic clerics than the temporary administrations run by local notables chosen by the U.S. Marine Corps, which controlled this area in the first months after the war, he added.

The election in Battha wasn't the one-person/one-vote kind that is acceptable under international standards. It was, however, the most democratic experience people here have seen in their lifetimes. It also was much more inclusive than the complicated system of prescreened caucuses that the CPA plans to use this summer.

In the absence of a reliable census, the CPA in Nasiriyah followed a suggestion by Shiite leaders and used the oil-for-food ration list as the electoral roll. The list counted families, not individuals, so every family got a vote when a male member appeared with a ration card. To encourage female participation, the card allowed another vote when a woman showed up (62 women did in Battha).

About 1,200 families, out of 4,000 on the village's ration list, took part in the vote. They selected 10 councilmen -- a doctor, three school teachers and several businessmen -- from a roster of 34 candidates. No violence was reported. "These are the seeds of freedom," retired soldier Mohammed Hussein said. "This was our first taste of democracy, and I am so excited because I didn't expect people to turn up in such numbers," said Ibrahim Jabar Hassan, a primary-school teacher who wore a checkered headscarf and dark sunglasses. "I hope after this we'll be able to elect a national government and finally have security."

Security is the sticking point, however. While the relative calm in many Shiite areas would allow elections to proceed -- as they likely could in the Kurdish north as well -- a peaceful gathering like the one in Battha is hard to imagine in Baghdad and the guerrilla-infested Sunni Arab belt of north-central Iraq. Most Sunni Arabs fiercely oppose a national direct election that they believe will concentrate power in the hands of Shiites, who make up 60% of Iraq's population.

But many people in southern Iraq don't see bloodshed elsewhere as a valid excuse to deny them a vote. Mr. Khafaji of the Sadr Office pointed out that the insurgency affects only about a quarter of Iraq's provinces -- and that, even in the U.S., elections are held although nearly half of the electorate doesn't vote. Despite the protests organized by people like Mr. Khafaji, John Bourne, the British head of the CPA in Nasiriyah, is comforted by a belief that Iraqi Shiites, who suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime, aren't ready to shed blood over electoral timetables -- at least not yet.

"They appreciate that getting violent about elections actually undermines their argument," Mr. Bourne said. "But, plainly, there will come a time when frustration will set in."

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