For the past five months, coalition officials in Iraq have been tackling one of the biggest challenges in their efforts to rebuild the country, introducing democracy to a nation that historically has been ruled by kings and brutal dictators. In bringing democracy to grass roots levels, the U.S. military is starting with the basics, such as how to write resolutions or make decisions.
The commanding officer of the U.S. Army's Second Brigade, First Armor Division, Colonel Ralph Baker, is a well-known figure among the leaders of the Karkh district in central Baghdad. He regularly attends the district's weekly interim advisory council meetings, listening and encouraging council members to work together to form policy and resolve issues.
On this day, Colonel Baker also reminds them that the democratic way of doing things also means having to follow certain procedures. He urges council members to prepare resolutions, so that they can be properly presented to the Baghdad City Council for approval.
An Iraqi interpreter working with the U.S. military and the advisory council, Manal George Michael, says it has not been easy for the members to learn how to make policy and assume civic responsibilities in a country still haunted by the memories of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"We did not have such experience before," said Ms. Michael. "This is the first time somebody is discussing with us, negotiating with us, taking our ideas, and transferring the ideas of the people in our neighborhood. Colonel Baker is always listening to them, negotiating and giving suggestions from both parties, so it is something very nice."
Even before U.S. President George Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, coalition military officers were already working alongside non-governmental organizations, helping local Iraqi leaders organize the election of 88 interim neighborhood advisory councils.
In June, those 88 councils elected nine district councils, and the nine district councils elected an interim 37-member Baghdad city council, forming the first popularly based local government in Iraqi history. Similar town councils have been set up all over the country.
Colonel Baker says the U.S. military, in particular, has a strong interest in making sure that all Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Turkmen, Christians, and Kurds, have a forum, where they can work out their differences. Through dialogue, he says, the groups can avoid conflicts that could destabilize the region and turn Iraq into a terrorist haven.
The veteran officer says the effort also has short-term benefits for the U.S. Army, because many council members, having forged relationships with their American advisors, are now more willing to act as intermediaries, especially in neighborhoods where American troops are viewed with suspicion and hostility. "They [council members] genuinely trust what the coalition is doing here, and want to work with us to move their country forward," said Colonel Baker.
But council members who want to build a democratic nation with American assistance face growing personal dangers. Opponents of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, largely Saddam loyalists, have targeted them in recent months for cooperating with coalition authorities.
In September, gunmen shot and killed a member of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Three weeks later, a car bomb exploded at the Baghdad Hotel. The hotel was home to five other Governing Council members and several Iraqi Cabinet ministers.
On Sunday, the chairman of a Karkh neighborhood council was shot to death by two assailants, while walking near his home.
The violence prompted two members of the Karkh district advisory council to resign. Some members say they receive death threats on a daily basis.
But council member Kareem al-Zubaidi does not believe it will be easy to deter many of his colleagues and ordinary Iraqi people from trying to help Iraq become a democratic country. "As you can see," he said, "still the people are working, and despite these threats, the people in the district, they are keen [to see] this experiment, this process, succeed, because it is the right way for democracy."
U.S. military leaders, eager to see stability in the country, say they could not agree more.