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Mosul Takes Step Toward Democracy

A major northern Iraqi city elects an interim mayor, but opposition leaders call vote unfair.

May 06, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — A convention of religious, ethnic and tribal leaders chose a former Iraqi army general as Mosul's mayor Monday, making it the country's first major city with an elected government.

About 150 delegates cast ballots to select an interim city council of 24 men, who then went behind closed doors and picked Ghanim Basso, 58, a former Iraqi army major general and longtime member of the now-deposed Baath Party, as interim mayor. Opposition leaders, who boycotted the vote, called it undemocratic and said it gave power to several supporters of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime. But the U.S. military official who oversaw the election process said he was satisfied that Basso, whose brother was executed by the Hussein regime a decade ago, was sufficiently independent to serve as mayor.

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of northwestern Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said the indirect election was a successful first step in building democracy. "By being here today, you are participating in the birth of the democratic process in Iraq," Petraeus told convention delegates before Monday's vote, calling it a "historic day."

To maintain ethnic balance, a Kurd was selected to the deputy mayor's post and the two men chosen as assistant mayors are a Christian Assyrian and a Turkmen, or ethnic Turk.

The new government faces several serious problems, including demands for better security, jobs and fuel for vehicles and gas stoves.

The gasoline shortage is so severe in Mosul that drivers wait in line for two days just to fill their tanks. "There are about four or five days left of fuel at the current rationed amount being distributed in the city," Petraeus told reporters. "It's a tragedy that a country with the second-largest oil reserves in the world should have to bring in fuel for its own citizens.

"And it's something we believe is a short-term measure until the [refinery] plants at Baiji and Basra can be brought back to full capacity."

The new mayor and council will have full power to govern Mosul -- which is officially Iraq's third-largest city but claims to be the second-largest -- and surrounding Nineveh province, Petraeus said.

"We want the mayor, the city council and government to succeed," Petraeus said. "The initial process will be to enforce the laws that exist. The legal code for Iraq is actually a fairly sound legal code, except that it was perverted by the Baath regime to serve its ends."

The new government will be backed by Iraqi police, who are now back on patrol, "and where necessary, [U.S.] soldiers," Petraeus added.

Isam Mahmood, a former lieutenant general tortured and jailed for plotting a coup against Hussein, had planned to be a delegate to the convention but said he decided to stay home because too many Hussein loyalists were involved.

"In Mosul, there were many political prisoners. But none were elected to the council," said Mahmood. "Those who shook Saddam's hand to the last minute were elected. This is the shame of this council today."

Mahmood spent three years in jail and was sentenced to hang along with five other conspirators, but Hussein released them all last October in a prison amnesty that he apparently hoped would strengthen his standing as war loomed.

Like several other community elders who boycotted Monday's vote, Mahmood said he would not actively oppose the mayor and council's work as long as they soon make way for direct elections that are free and fair.

"If this election is for a temporary government, that will be easy," he said. "But if it is not, it is a new disaster for Iraq."

Petraeus assured convention delegates meeting Monday that the interim council and mayor will be replaced by city residents in a direct vote but did not say when. Officers on the general's staff said there is work to be done first, such as educating Iraqis on the basics of democracy.

The relatively trouble-free selection of a new government was remarkable in a city with a complex ethnic and political mix that just three weeks ago erupted into two days of rioting that left at least 12 Iraqi civilians dead.

Petraeus' airborne troops took over control of the city from U.S. Marines and Special Forces soldiers soon after the violence and went straight to work defusing tensions. Petraeus encouraged political compromises and prepared the groundwork for the Mosul election Monday.

But as the city's two main rivals worked the postelection crowd Monday, it was clear that political pressures will bear down on the new mayor and council from behind the scenes.

Mishaan Juburi and Ayad Hamdany, two Arab politicians backed by rival Kurdish factions, agreed to withdraw their claims to power and allow what were supposed to be more independent candidates to run Monday.

But Juburi has made no secret of his determined support for Basso, and although U.S. military officers privately blame Juburi for last month's unrest, his candidate is now mayor.

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