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democracy 101
From: Marcela Gaviria · Re: Mosul · Date: Nov. 17, 2003

 
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Iraq's Peoples and Politics
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Introduction: A Long Road

Mosul was the first city in the country to hold local elections under the occupation. Its council is reputed to be one of the most progressive in the country.

Ghanim Sultan Abdullah al-Basso, a Sunni Muslim, was once a high-ranking general in Saddam's army and a member of the Baath Party. He is now the mayor of Mosul and the governor of Nineveh Province. I am told he had close ties to Saddam but fell out of favor, was imprisoned, and subsequently lost his brother and a cousin to the regime's security apparatus. I like him simply because he looks like my father. He has these eyes that sag with exhaustion, rosy cheeks, and a gray mustache that sits proud over his mouth.

Al-Basso has invited us to sit in on the weekly meeting of Mosul's city council. We are interested in attending because this northern town of roughly 2 million people has made more strides toward democracy than most other cities in Iraq. Mosul was the first city in the country to hold local elections under the occupation. Its council is reputed to be one of the most progressive in the country, with 24 representatives from all religious and ethnic factions in Iraq -- Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, Turks, Assyrians, Christians, and even some former Baath Party members. As inclusive as the council tries to be, women are conspicuously absent -- except for the presence of Hero Mustafa, an Iraqi-American who represents Ambassador Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The council meeting begins at 10 a.m. sharp. I expected something far less orderly. But all the seats are taken. The councilmen are busy shuffling notes and reviewing the agenda for the day. They seem like good students attending lecture.

On one side of the drab rectangular room sit a dozen Arab sheikhs dressed in full tribal regalia. On the other side are a group of college professors and businessmen wearing cardigan sweaters or polyester suits. Martin asks Hero how many Baath Party members she'd like to see banned from the council. "I'd get rid of about three or four," she replies bluntly. I spend some time trying to figure out which of the three or four she is referring to, but it's practically impossible to tell. Even if they are not Baathist, they all have Saddam's trademark mustache de rigeur.

Governor al-Basso calls the meeting to order by expressing his condolences for the 17 soldiers who died in a helicopter crash over the weekend. General Petraeus, who has been to 53 council meetings this year, responds that he now has "17 additional reasons to work harder to bring freedom to the Iraqi people." The general seems determined to remain optimistic: "I feel we are on an upswing after being on a plateau." Petraeus strikes me as gracious and warm even in tense times. He reminds me of Fred Rogers -- except that his neighborhood is very different.

FRONTLINE's Martin Smith talks with the imam of a mosque in Mosul, Iraq, which was raided by the U.S. military because weapons parts were said to be hidden there. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)

Democracy is obedient, at least in this little room in the middle of Mosul. There is no discussion, no debate. The single resolution put forth for a vote is one proposed by General Petraeus. He asks if the council will agree to expel the Communist Party for squatting in some public building. Everyone agrees.

In truth, there is only one tense moment in the nearly three hours we sat in the meeting. A turbaned sheikh sitting at the tail end of the U-shaped table asks to be heard. He tells the general that several of his constituents, particularly some imams, have complained about how the mosques are being searched by the police. "The New Iraqi forces should be more polite when they inspect our mosques," the sheikh says emphatically.

General Petraeus does not show a soft side. He sternly rebukes the sheikh, telling him plainly, "We will discuss this with the civil defense forces, but the mosques need to be reminded that they cannot hide weapons. They may lose their immunity under international law. We want to respect mosques, but the mosques cannot break the law. Our soldiers will continue to search every mosque. Tell your friends they can count on that." He softens the tone by using the word "moomtas," which means "great" in Arabic.

The scolding might have turned into a substantive discussion if it weren't for the arrival of Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi, a well-connected former exile and an influential member of the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad, is in town for the day and has come chaperoned with a delegation of 68 cars full of bodyguards and advisors. I am told by a translator that the council is eager to meet him, for "he is the man responsible for bringing the Americans."

Chalabi walks into the room dressed in a flashy blue sport jacket and yellow tie. Four bodyguards park themselves at each corner of the room and hold their AK-47s tightly. I don't know Chalabi well, but we have spent time with him in the past, interviewing him and following him to several press conferences. He seems tired, but his self-confidence and arrogance have not worn off. He shakes a lot of hands and proceeds to give a lengthy speech, which I'm sure I have heard before: "I am grateful to my American friends who came to liberate Iraq from Saddam's regime.... We are now liberated from Saddam, from the Baath Party. Liberated from the past...." He drones on and on.

When Chalabi ends his speech, Governor al-Basso begins one of his own. It, too, goes on and on. It's a wonder anything ever gets passed at city hall. Martin, Scott, and I start to fidget in our seats. Martin passes me a note asking if I will weave my way past the chairs and take the microphone off General Petraeus's chest so we can liberate ourselves from the tedious speechmaking. I hesitate. But then I realize this meeting could take hours, so I make my way to the general.

"I think I understand how it works, " I tell General Petraeus as I slip the microphone off his uniform. "Whoever speaks the longest wins." The general winks at me in agreement. Later he tells us, "That's Democracy 101."

 

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posted february 12, 2004

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