- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

BAGHDAD — Outside the heavy gates of the Iraqi Hunting Club in the posh suburb of Mansour, a burly guard blocked the way to the offices of the Iraqi National Congress at the heart of Baghdad’s vibrant new Democracy district.

The well-appointed offices behind him testify to the standing in Iraqi politics of the INC and its Pentagon-backed leader, Ahmed Chalabi.

But a few yards away other, humbler political parties have also set up stall, evidence of Iraq’s initial burst of political activism since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Around the corner is the office of a Shi’ite group, the Society of Honorable Scholars of Najaf. The Iraqi National Accord Movement, the Al-Wafaq Islamic Movement and the Royal Democratic Alliance all can be found nearby.

They are among a rash of political parties that has erupted in recent months as Iraqis revel in the style, if not the substance, of political freedom.

Few Iraqi parties have published manifestos. Indeed, many are without offices, or in the case of those that do, furniture to put in them. Most have simply marked out their ideological territory with banners.

Many of the new political outfits are stillborn and disappear, like the Free Officers’ and Civilians’ Movement set up by a former Iraqi officer in exile.

The impermanence of many parties makes it difficult to conduct an accurate survey of their number. But current estimates suggest that in the three months since the ousting of the Ba’athist regime almost 70 political outfits have emerged.

Among the bizarre beneficiaries is the newly re-established Communist Party.

“All the political forces are coming out now,” said Latif Al-Saadi, one of the founding members of the party, long outlawed under Saddam. “All our lives we lived without democracy but now there are many parties, from us communists to the Islamists who want to install Shariah law.”

The Islamic Dawa party is one such group. Its banner, strung out at its offices in the former Culture Ministry’s youth club, reads: “The will of Allah rules.”

“We hope to have a Shariah law,” said a spokesman who declined to be named yesterday, admitting that such a move would see Iraq’s recent political flowering wither.

“There won’t be any political parties when we have Shariah,” he said. “It’s not that Islam is against democracy, it’s just that it is different here than in the West.”

It is not only the political parties that are taking off. There are now about 150 newspapers, many with ties to specific political or religious groups, in the Iraqi capital.

This has sparked a mini-industry of its own, with peddlers hawking newspapers on every street corner. Most admit that very few of the penny sheets sell even a single copy.

At the same time, activist groups are tentatively emerging. “There are now union groups for workers’ rights, and even women’s groups,” said Mr. Al-Saadi, standing beneath a poster in the monumental style of the old, Soviet-bloc communists.

Reminded that it was the capitalist enemy — America — that had allowed the Communist Party to flourish again, he only replied: “Saddam killed many of my comrades.”

And he promised that Iraq’s Communist Party would not be looking for any Cold War-style showdown with President Bush. “We learned a lesson from Stalin,” he said. “We learned also from Fidel [Castro]. Now we know there’s no socialism without democracy.”

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