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Grassroots Democracy in Iraq, American Style

Medea Benjamin

BAGHDAD -- Majid Muhammed Yousef yearns for democracy. As an Iraqi Kurd, he and his family suffered tremendously under Saddam Hussein. After the US overthrew Saddam, Majid was grateful and excited about building a new Iraq.

But the first four months of US occupation have left him wondering what the US means by democracy.

At the end of May, a group of US soldiers came to his neighborhood in a dangerous section of Baghdad and convened a meeting. The neighborhood badly needed some help. Since the war, there was a breakdown in law and order. Gangs roamed at will, looting the small businesses and shooting each other and innocent bystanders in turf wars. The women were afraid to go outside, and businesses were closing down. Majid, who sold electrical appliances out of his home, was having a hard time supporting his wife and three children. Something had to be done to make the neighborhood safe again.

At the meeting, the soldiers announced that they were going to supervise elections for a local council and asked people to put themselves forward as candidates. The council members would not be paid, they were told, but they would receive the assistance of the US military in making local improvements.

Majid was happy to see this initiative, but he decided not to put his name forward for the local council. He didn't like the American occupiers. He cringed when he saw the soldiers barreling down the narrow streets in their ferocious tanks, guns pointed at the locals. "It's just like Palestine or Beirut," he said disapprovingly. "No one likes to have their country occupied, and I didn't want to be a collaborator."

But his neighbors pushed him forward. Majid was a natural community leader. When the garbage had piled up in streets, threatening the health of the community, Majid used his own money to have a truck come clear it up. When robbers were entering the shop on the corner, Majid quickly gathered a group of men to chase them out of the neighborhood. He was a local hero and the people clamored for him to represent them. "I reluctantly entered the race at the last minute and got 55 of the 80 votes," he recalled. Then he broke into a smile and said, "Imagine if I had campaigned. It would have been a landslide."

Five local councils members were selected from a slate of 11. Majid, the highest vote getter, was made president.

The elections took place on June 2, and their first meeting with the US authorities was scheduled for June 7 at 10am. The five members of the newly elected council were at the designated meeting place bright and early. Standing outside in the hot sun, they waited and waited and waited. After several hours, they were told to go home, the meeting had been cancelled. "There was no explanation," said Majid, annoyed, "and no apology about keeping us waiting for hours."

A few days later the Americans came to Majid's house with an assignment. They wanted him and the council to do a report about the neighborhood's problems and suggest solutions. They also wanted him to do an inventory of the weapons people kept in their homes. He bristled at the latter task, feeling it was too intrusive and an attempt to make people even more helpless by taking away their ability to defend themselves. But Majid set about the first task with great enthusiasm. He and his fellow council members went from house to house, asking for input. They came up with a thick report chock full of suggestions that ranged from turning off the electricity during the day so it could be on in the evening to keep away the nocturnal looters to outlawing dark windows in cars so they could see who was driving in them.

With a great sense of accomplishment, the council finished its report on June 11, a mere 9 days after they were elected. When they went to turn in the report, however, they were told that the council had been disbanded and they should go home.

Majid and his fellow council members were stunned. They were given no reason for their dismissal. In less than two weeks, they had been elected and fired. It made no sense.

"Perhaps we made too many suggestions. Perhaps they didn't like our suggestions," said Majid, struggling to find an explanation. "Or perhaps this is democracy, American-style. In any case, what can we do? They are the occupiers and we are the occupied."

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