Iraq Provinces Try to Overcome Political Disarray

Posted in Iraq , Democracy | 16-Apr-09 | Author: Steven Myers| Source: New York Times (registration required)

The provincial council of Babil Province, elected in January, met for the first time this week in Hilla, the provincial capital, and listened to complaints from the audience.

HILLA, Iraq - Iraq's provincial elections in January promised something still rare here: hope for the democratic political process. "The best election in the Middle East," a party leader here in Babil Province declared.

What has happened since then is something far more familiar to Iraqis: threats, intrigue, back-room deal-making, protests, political paralysis and, increasingly, popular discontent.

Two and a half months after the elections, the 14 provinces that voted have only now begun forming provincial councils, the equivalent of state legislatures in the United States. Five provinces, including Babil, Najaf and Basra, still have no functioning governments, despite a deadline that passed last week, as party leaders squabble over the selection of governors, council chairmen and their deputies.

Elections that were supposed to strengthen Iraq's democracy, unite its ethnic and sectarian factions, and begin to improve sorely needed basic services - water, electricity, roads - have instead exposed the fault lines that still threaten the country's stability.

The disarray reflects the anxious jockeying before national elections expected this winter, contests that could inflame tensions and disrupt President Obama's plan to withdraw American combat forces in 2010.

"We have to be honest with the people," said Nehme al-Bekari, the lawmaker here in Babil who called the election the region's best. "Our experiment is not mature enough. We are still students in the school of democracy."

Mr. Bekari belongs to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's Dawa Party, which emerged as the strongest force in Iraqi politics after a campaign in which its candidates pledged to promote security and rule of law.

Since the elections, however, Mr. Maliki's supporters have had to cobble together coalitions with the other Shiite parties that dominate the south, undercutting the prime minister's promise to unite Iraq's political forces.

Kenneth M. Hillas, the leader of the American reconstruction team here, said the election results in Babil, like elsewhere, underscored the deeply fragmented nature of Iraqi politics.

The effort to form regional governments out of the pieces, he said, was now consuming leaders in Baghdad - and even those in neighboring countries, presumably Iran, though he declined to say so explicitly - interested in shoring up power before the national vote. Iraq's Shiite political parties, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, maintain close ties to Iran's Shiite leaders.

"Though we don't maybe readily see it, there are Iraqis and other neighboring countries that worry about the implications of a split in the Shiite political coalition and what impact that will have on the national elections," Mr. Hillas said.

The elections were important because they were meant to codify the powers of the central government and the provincial ones. The councils have the authority to legislate and to tax, and, in theory, the power to provide services that remain meager.

The elections heightened expectations among voters that have already dimmed, according to people interviewed across Iraq this week. Political disillusion is taking root in a country that has had only five years of democracy.

"We need a miracle to change," said Salim Najim, a driver in Basra, where the selection of a governor proved to be fraught.

In largely Sunni provinces, including Anbar and Nineveh, the election of Sunni-controlled councils has alienated the members of opposition groups, who have demonstrated in the streets and boycotted council meetings. The same thing happened in Wasit, a largely Shiite province southeast of Baghdad. On April 6, American troops intervened to stop Iraqi police officers from arresting four new council members in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad.

"It's a real expression of the democracy Iraq has achieved," said the former governor of Babil, Salem Salih al-Muslimawi, who was elected to the new council, "but the hopes of the people are still left hanging."

Babil's provincial capital, Hilla, is a dilapidated city near the ruins of Babylon, the city that nearly 4,000 years ago produced one of civilization's first written legal and administrative codes.

Today, sewage flows into the Euphrates there. Hilla's streets are potholed and littered with garbage. Of the 42 textile factories that operated here in 2005, only 2 remain open, said Amir Mahmoud Chabok, chairman of the Iraqi Federation of Industries in Babil. Agribusinesses struggle with declining fuel subsidies, rising rents and sporadic electricity.

"The people of Hilla expect better services," said Karim Fakhri Helal, a dean at Babil University. "They expect electricity. They expect jobs."

He complained that Babil's new council had instead been preoccupied with consolidating power and dividing the spoils.

Even more ominous for provincial governments is Iraq's financial crisis. Babil's budget this year has been slashed to $135 million from $258 million last year. And the payment of budget funds is late, hindering the new council's work before it even begins.

When Babil's new council met for the first time on Sunday - three days behind the deadline - its 30 members celebrated the peaceful transfer of authority from the old council elected in Iraq's first provincial elections in 2005 to the new one.

The tensions that dominate Iraq's political life quickly surfaced. A man stood and denounced one council member's reference to the violence that has consumed the country since 2003 as "a side effect" of democracy.

Another council member, Fawziya Hassan Kadum, demanded the release of prisoners, including her husband, arrested by American and Iraqi forces in 2007. "Release our sons!" she shouted. "Release our daughters!" The audience applauded.

The new council's first order of business - electing a chairman and a governor - remained unresolved, however, as national leaders representing Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Shiite cleric in exile Moktada al-Sadr bargained in Baghdad that night.

"We are not as progressive a democracy in experience as Sweden or the United States," Mr. Bekari said. "Everything has to be settled in Baghdad, not in the provinces."

A presentation about the council's new powers by an American nongovernmental organization, the Research Triangle Institute, was drowned out by lawmakers milling about. They adjourned after lunch without a vote.

On Tuesday, after three days of talks, Babil's council elected a chairman, Kadum Majid Tuman. He represents the Sadrists, who boycotted the 2005 elections but now seek a political accommodation with Mr. Maliki's bloc.

The deal left out the council's members from the Islamic Supreme Council, who stormed out in protest, refusing to vote.

The province, meanwhile, still has no governor. "The political situation is strangled in Babil," Mr. Bekari said.

Reporting was contributed by Abeer Mohammed, Riyadh Mohammed and Suadad al-Salhy from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Basra, Diyala and Wasit Provinces.