Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Troubled Province Tries Democracy

Governorate west of Baghdad shrugs off instability and insurrection to hold peaceful ballot.
By Wisam M.

People in the central Iraqi governorate of Anbar have taken their first steps towards representative government – despite a local insurgency and general instability – by peacefully choosing a 41-member council.


"What happened was the minimum level of democracy," said Ali Mukhlif al-Assafi, head of the council administration. "Since there is no real solution, this is a good option."


Anbar governorate, in particular the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, have been the centre of fierce resistance to the United States presence in Iraq.


But many Anbar residents said they felt the council was an important first step towards true representation in an area in turmoil.


"The good thing about this is that it included all civil society representatives from all areas," said Assafi.


There is one woman on the new council, which otherwise includes a broad swathe of male society including tribal chiefs, businessmen, clergy, engineers, health and education sector workers, lawyers, labourers, and one member who represents the former Iraqi army.


Several political parties also placed members, including the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Communist Party, and the Anbar National Congress, a local party. Local tribes received 10 seats, and a women's conference chose Afaf Abd al-Razaq, a teacher, to represent them.


Eight representatives were chosen from the city of Ramadi, seven from Fallujah, and two each from smaller cities.


On February 19, the 41 new council members elected a president, vice-president and secretary.


The new representatives replaced the now-dissolved former council appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA. on a transitional basis.


"The biggest achievement of the previous council was paving the way for this new one," said lawyer Luay Adnan, who is also an administrator with the council.


The election was indirect, based on the caucus system. The process began in early January when a 400-member conference of experts, notables and professionals met to appoint 11 committees, each of which organised a caucus meeting to elected the 41 council members.


To run for election, candidates could not be senior Baath party members who came under the CPA De-Baathification order. Nor could they have a criminal record or be former members of the former “mukhabarat” or intelligence service.


The role of the 11 committees has not ended with the election. They have proposed a number of projects relating to education, border security, internal security, and other projects, and say they will continue working under the authority of the council.


The conferences were supervised by the CPA's representative in Anbar, Keith Mines, along with two Iraqi judges and employees from the local governance project of the Research Triangle Institute, RTI, a US institution contracted to do local government work in Iraq.


Anbar residents were mostly enthusiastic about taking part in caucus meetings, but there were rough spots, organisers said, and some residents did not readily accept the results of the elections.


A Ramadi taxi driver accused Sheikh Amir Ali Sleman al-Assafi – who was elected to the new council representing the powerful Dilem tribe – of being "an agent of the Americans". Shortly after the election, a suicide bomber hit the sheikh's house, killing several guards but leaving him unharmed.


But generally, the process went peacefully.


"This was the first democratic experience in Anbar after the war," said Arkan Jabir, a journalist from Ramadi.


"The election was well received by most people," said Abdalla Mohammed, an RTI worker who helped coordinate the elections. He pointed out that the level of participation was high, saying, "It was clear that people are eager for democracy and democratic practice."


Many Iraqis defend the new council members. "They represent a patriotic will and no one can accuse them of being agents of the Americans," said Ramadi police officer Yasir al-Alusy.


But he downplayed the role of the CPA in selecting candidates, "They were chosen by us; there was no role for the CPA in choosing them."


"We have a religious duty that pushed us to take part in the council," said Sheikh Khalid Sulayman al-Fahdawi, the director of the religious endowment in Anbar.


"Don't curse the darkness – try to light a candle," added Fahdawi, quoting an old expression. "Let us keep people preoccupied with positive thinking rather than leaving them open to evil ones."


Like others in the area, Fahdawi felt it was better to be part of the process than to oppose it.


"We believe that Iraq should not be left for the corrupt people," he said. "There will be more damage than good if we leave the council."


He pointed out that "members of the former regime" had tried to disrupt the caucus process, but were unsuccessful.


"They were able to talk, but now they can't challenge the integrity of the new members," he said.


Wisam M. Karim al-Jaf is a trainee journalist based in Baghdad.