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They're Foot Soldiers for Democracy in Iraq

From the bottom up, neighborhood by neighborhood, the Army is teaching civics.

June 12, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. Army Lt. Tom Casey and the rest of the 1st Platoon are combat soldiers, armed and trained to take out enemy fighters. But in recent weeks, their mission has expanded, and now they are trying to help build grass-roots democracy in Iraq .

Casey and his soldiers are like ward leaders, talking politics and representative democracy with residents of the neighborhoods they patrol. When the Americans are not out chasing criminals and confiscating weapons, they and many other soldiers stationed in Iraq are at the forefront of an experiment in nation-building whose success or failure could well be the difference between a successful U.S. occupation of Iraq -- and disaster.

The military has created representative councils in smaller cities throughout Iraq but is now concentrating on Baghdad, which could serve as a bellwether for the country.

"You receive no reward for your hard work, but you are helping people," Casey said Wednesday evening to nine would-be Iraqi politicians gathered in a schoolyard in the capital. "You must remember, this is a long, long journey and you will not always make everyone happy."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi councils -- An article Thursday in Section A about the U.S. military's efforts to build neighborhood councils in Iraq misspelled the surname of an Army lieutenant colonel. His name is P.J. Dermer, not Durmer.

The crowd listened intently to Casey's speech before he asked whether anyone had a question. "I have too many questions, not just one," said Hassan Rubaee, leaning forward in his seat.

Trying to explain the principles of representative democracy to people who lived for decades under Saddam Hussein's tyranny is a complicated mission, especially for soldiers who have a limited understanding of the culture around them and have never been involved in creating a representative government.

In just three weeks, however, they have helped Baghdad's residents select 56 neighborhood councils. They have about 30 more to go -- and hope to have established an interim city council by month's end.

"We had to task it to the military because, as usual, they are the only guys on the ground and with sufficient numbers," said Lt. Col. P.J. Durmer, who works with the U.S.-led civil administration.

This was not part of the original plan to rebuild Iraq, Durmer said. It evolved a bit at a time, as civil administrators found that Army commanders around the country were independently introducing Iraqis to concepts of democracy. Although an almost spontaneous grass-roots movement was taking hold, plans to start at the top, by creating a national interim government, were floundering. Eventually, the U.S.-led occupation authority said it was abandoning the idea of having Iraqis come together next month to choose a national interim government.

Officials are now trying to push from the bottom up, hoping to accomplish at least three goals: convincing Iraqis that they have not been disenfranchised from having a say in running their own country; creating a farm system that can produce national leaders; and teaching concepts and responsibilities associated with self-rule.

"We are trying to transition to democratic thought," Durmer said. "Saddam ruled by the gun. We are telling them if you accept democracy, you rule by your mind."

As part of the experiment, this city of 5 million residents has been divided into 86 precincts. About three weeks ago, the U.S. Army started sending its soldiers out to help create a neighborhood council in each precinct.

The process is a bit like a school election, where candidates nominate themselves and any adult can then vote. The councils, made up of nine to 25 people depending on the precinct's size, then select two members to sit on a districtwide council. The district council will select members who ultimately will sit on a city council.

Each elected body will serve as an advisory board to the U.S.-led occupation authorities.

On Wednesday, the soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment headed to the Jameela neighborhood in the sprawling Shiite Muslim ghetto formerly known as Saddam City.

When the soldiers arrived, the nine members of the new neighborhood council were seated and chatting among themselves.

Casey's first action was to have everyone sign forms disavowing any allegiance to Hussein's Baath Party and a statement swearing obedience to all laws set by the occupation authority.

All nine present in Jameela signed their forms. Then it was time to select two people to serve at the district council level.

"This is the first time we are meeting," Rubaee said. "How can we elect or nominate others? We don't know each other."

Casey thought for a moment and said everyone had two minutes to introduce themselves and say why they wanted the job. None of the nine hesitated.

"I am Ahmed Hassan. Five members of my family were executed. I came here in order to help this neighborhood."

"Assad Mohammed Tawfik. I worked for 20 years in the Ministry of Trade. My main objective is to relieve the agony of the people of this neighborhood."

"Ibrahim Kadhim. I could not be appointed a teacher because I was not a member of the Baath Party so I worked as a merchant. I'd like to work on this committee to help set aside the past."

Then it was time to vote. Casey said the vote would be by secret ballot, and everyone would cast votes for two people.

Rubaee came out the clear victor, but there was a tie for second place so Casey held a runoff. The two runners-up tied again. So the group decided that all three would go to the next level.

"The community has spoken," Durmer said.

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