- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

BAGHDAD — L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, yesterday hailed the opening of the Interim City Advisory Council in Baghdad as a major step toward local and national government.

He also saluted the courage of the 37 delegates, selected in a process that began in May with the formation of 88 local councils in the city of 5 million.

Mr. Bremer praised the councilors’ “courage, perseverance and self-confidence … at a time when malicious people pose a threat.”

The councilors agreed to take up their posts amid burgeoning threats against Iraqis who cooperate with the coalition. The threats were underscored by the killing last week of seven Iraqi police recruits in the nearby town of Ramadi.

“It is perhaps the most important day for Baghdad since 9 April, when coalition forces liberated you,” Mr. Bremer said in a chandeliered room inside the city’s municipal compound, which remains blackened by postwar looting and burning.

Reflecting increased security fears in the capital, numerous Humvees and armored vehicles ringed the compound as helicopters buzzed overhead.

M-16 machine-gun-toting plainclothed sharpshooters surveyed proceedings warily from the meeting-room floor and its balcony.

The Baghdad council was one of two convened yesterday. The other was in the southern Shi’ite city of Najaf where the mayor was fired last week.

The councils — which join other municipal governments with limited powers emerging around Iraq — are expected to act as a proving ground for national leaders, as the United States tries to lay the ground for a quick transition to democracy.

U.S. advisers also announced an initial economic agenda, including establishment of an independent Iraqi central bank, and plans to rid the country of bank notes bearing the image of Saddam Hussein — after printing millions of new notes last month.

The councilors appeared to relish a heady taste of organized democracy after long being cowed by Saddam’s draconian one-party rule.

The first order of business was to call for census in Baghdad, in the belief that it would increase the representation from their respective neighborhoods.

They ended with a lengthy argument over the date of the next meeting.

At one point, the council presented Mr. Bremer with a wooden gavel and a block on which to strike it.

“The objects represent a symbol of law and order that we all crave,” council Chairman Khaled Basher Mirza said to loud applause.

“The strength of the council lies in its community roots,” he said.

The council has six women — unusual in Iraq’s male-dominated society — including Deputy Chairman Siham Hattab Hamdan, who wore a light-brown head scarf.

The project has been financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has invested $7.9 million so far with the stated goal of “encouraging Iraqi participation in public decision making and stimulating local initiatives.”

The newly elected City Council in Najaf held its first meeting yesterday, with a U.S. commander telling the representatives they must express the views of their constituents, not just their own.

The meeting came a week after U.S. forces arrested the city’s mayor. The arrest, after Iraqi prosecutors charged the mayor with corruption, pleased Najaf residents, who accused him of being a member of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party because of his military background.

Mr. Bremer told the Baghdad councilors in his inaugural address that their powers would be advisory — until a nationwide referendum in a few months validated an Iraqi-designed constitution, followed by the establishment of fully elected councils in each city.

Still, the council’s establishment partially answers complaints that Iraqis so far have been excluded from decisions affecting their country, shattered after three wars in the past 23 years.

“We started off by handing out fliers on street corners or at mosques trying to get someone’s attention,” recalled Lt. Col. Jerry Wilson, an Army civil affairs specialist.

He had been joined in canvassing by Lt. Col. Joe Rice, a 5th Corps officer.

The officers recalled the early meetings while organizing councils for 88 districts in Baghdad. The early sessions sometimes were held in classrooms with large adults crammed into tiny wooden desks.

In one case, they met in a bunker two stories underground, illuminated by a single light bulb that went out as power failed.

The local councils chose representatives for nine Baghdad districts.

The people turned out to be “very smart, very hungry and very afraid,” Col. Wilson said.

“At first very few turned out,” said Amal Rassam, an Iraqi anthropologist at New York City University who is working with coalition officials in Baghdad.

“They didn’t see the relevance,” she said. “They thought democracy was less urgent than getting electricity, water and above all jobs and security.

“But very fast, they realized that their voice on just these issues could be heard, and they could make things happen,” Ms. Rassam said.

After a modest beginning, each of the 88 local councils began attracting hundreds of people to its meetings.

Many Iraqis, irate at the U.S.-led occupation, which has been bedeviled by power outages and interruptions of other basic services, rushed to join up after discovering the community councils were up and running.

“We opened a very emotional cork,” Col. Wilson said. “It’s absolutely new for them… we act referees, explainers, arbitrators and coaches.”

The community councils in turn have elected delegates to nine regional councils, from which the city council was chosen.

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