In Mosul, everyone's talking about democracy

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq , Asia | 14-Jan-04 | Author: Neela Banerjee| Source: The New York Times

Town hall meeting studies how it works

MOSUL, Iraq If many Iraqis complain that the foreigners who run their country have given them little so far, they at least can now grab, shout out, dissect, swear by and see in action a word that had meant nothing before: demokratiya, or democracy

It was knit into every passionate utterance on Monday as about 250 tribal sheiks, clerics, activists for women's rights, lawyers and Kurdish leaders picked by the foreigners to represent the elite of Mosul gathered to discuss the country that will emerge once the American-led civil administration leaves in July.

The town hall meeting is one of hundreds that the occupation forces and Iraqi politicians will hold in the coming weeks, from the provincial to the neighborhood levels, to explain to Iraqis the nuts and bolts of the transition to self-rule and to hear their concerns about the process.

Everyone who spoke at the Mosul Social Club agreed that Iraq should be a democracy. As in any democracy, people articulated differing ideas of their country.

The Americans at the edges of the hall and outside guarding the building celebrated the variety of opinions they heard. But some Iraqis themselves seemed pained that they lacked a uniform vision as they move now to build a free and functioning state from scratch.

"I know this is a very sensitive time in Iraq, so we must act like one hand, one heart," Ghanim al-Basso, the provincial governor, told the audience. "But democracy is a new word for us, and we have no experience with it."

The occupation authorities have promised such a meeting in every one of Iraq's 18 provincial capitals. The first one was in Basra about two weeks ago. Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and the biggest in the northern part of the country, was a stronghold of the old government.

It was in Mosul, notably, that Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a firefight with American soldiers in July.

But the American military seems to have won over some people here, in great part by spending lots of money on projects that create jobs.

More recently, after the capture of Saddam, midlevel Baath Party loyalists have begun to turn over weapons "in truckloads," said a spokesman for the 101st Airborne, which oversees the region.

At the two-hour session, the audience heard from a panel of five political representatives, including a member of the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad whose uncle leads one the biggest local tribes, the governor, who is a former high-ranking Baathist, and the deputy governor, who is an autonomy-minded Kurd.

Recently, the top Kurdish parties have united to demand a large state in northern Iraq that would be bound to Baghdad under a federalist system. The Governing Council has said it wants a federalist system, too, but the two sides have yet to agree on what that would look like.

The Kurds, who essentially lived independently after the Americans created a "no flight" zone over northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war, are not enthralled at the idea of giving up their autonomy.

The prospect of an Iraq divided on ethnic lines - the Kurds account for about 20 percent of the population - alarmed many Arabs at the meeting.

"Why do you want federalism based on nationality if we have a constitution and the same freedoms for all?" asked a man in the audience, Amir al-Rakan.

Massacres of the Kurds by successive Iraqi governments were left unmentioned, but their memory charged the air in the hall.

"We are one country, one future," the deputy governor, Khasro Goran, answered. "But the big brother must not beat up the little brother. We have to have the nationality question solved before anything."

Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, the Governing Council member, said: "Federalism is not independence for the Kurds. They will have limited authority but will answer to Baghdad."

Part civics lesson, part group therapy session, the discussion left people craving more. Men prepared entire speeches that they read from the floor, often to be politely cut off by the moderator. One woman in the dress of a devout Muslim asked how to get women who lead exceedingly traditional lives at home involved in the political process. No one answered her.

When the forum ended, a man at the floor microphone began shouting: "A hundred times I requested the chance to ask a question! But I think you don't want some of us to talk!"

Sheiks of the Shemur tribe, from the town of Talafar, left angry.

"We talk about democracy, we all understand democracy clearly," one said on the street outside. "But how can we talk about democracy when we have a tribe of 400,000 people and they aren't represented on the local council?"

Right now, democracy for Iraqis seems to be working properly when it protects their particular vested interests. Amina Goyani, who works at a women's center in Mosul and is a City Council member, thinks that could change gradually if more such meetings were held.

"People are afraid of change," Goyani said. "They never saw change. They didn't see anything for 35 years."