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Political Parties Begin to Flourish in Iraq After Saddam's Fall - 2003-04-22

In Iraq, political parties are sprouting like seedlings of a democratic future that has yet to be clearly defined. At least a dozen political parties, some old, some new, have rushed to fill the political void left by the ouster of the Baath Party that ruled Iraq for more than 30 years. There is now a rush in Iraq to implement President Bush's promise of democracy.

The Islamic Dawa Party has taken over the former Culture Ministry's Sinbad Youth Club. In the doorway three men wash down a wooden table with an old Russian army telephone perched on top. A banner announcing the office hangs on the fence outside. It reads, one religion, one country, one blood.

There is no staff around, but the party headquarters is open for business.

Not far away, the Kurdish Democratic Party has set up its operation in an elegant, columned stone building that once housed the center for Saddam Hussein's palace architects.

The KDP, led by Massoud Barzani, is already well established in Iraq's northern Kurdish area.

Architect Khasro Jaf opened the KDP's Baghdad headquarters a week ago. "We are in Baghdad because it is the capital," he said. "First of all, our democratic party, it was existing a long time ago. And because everything, the heavy issues, comes out of Baghdad now, anything sooner or later, it is going to come from Baghdad. So, this is why we are in Baghdad, and to expose main ideas to people."

The other well-established Kurdish party of the north is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. It has set up a main Baghdad office in the former farmers' union building. Two men sit inside a small room with guards and a line of sandbags outside.

In the same neighborhood, Jassem Mohamed greets the curious in the entry of what was once Iraq's passport office. He was named three-days ago to run one of five branch offices of the Iraqi National Congress in Baghdad. He got the job because his cousin is an INC bodyguard.

INC leader Ahmad Chalabi left Iraq in 1958 and organized the group in exile.

While Mr. Mohammed hands out photos of Mr. Chalabi, some workers brew a pot of tea on a fire fueled by abandoned passports strewn around the looted building.

"I heard he was struggling to fight Iraqi regime a long time ago but some people try to say some bad stories about him," he said. "But then I see a lot of people supporting him, I am convinced now he is one of the greatest guys. [So] now [I] join his party."

Mr. Mohammed joined the INC, but he is keeping his options open for the future. "There is a booklet they will issue, this party, this INC Party. The booklet will issue what this party is all about," he said. "And when I read this booklet, if I am convinced to stay in this party, I will stay in. If I am not, I will leave, I will join another party. But until this moment, what I understand, this is a democratic party."

The busiest political office in Baghdad these days is the Communist Party's, headquarters, set up in a building that once housed Russian advisors.

Dozens of party members and potential recruits cram into the small entryway, while others debate politics openly on the street outside. It is a luxury that did not exist under Saddam's iron grip on the nation.

A member of the Iraqi Communist Party Central Committee, Adl Khalid, says it is the oldest party in Iraq, established nearly 70 years ago, and he says it continued to function secretly during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Now it is once again operating openly. Members have already circulated the first edition of the party newspaper, the first non-government political publication to hit the streets of Baghdad in decades.

"First of all, this party existed for the people and from the people so these people are aware of us and what we are doing from a long time ago. Our principles are to service the people," he said. "This is our logo here, Freedom and Happiness."

As Mr. Khalid explains the party structure to visitors an Iraqi army officer walks in to sign up.

Now dressed in civilian clothes, Colonel Ghassan Nouri has spent the morning shopping around for a political party. He has already visited the newly-opened office of the Free Officers and Civilians Movement of Iraq, but he says it was empty and he was not persuaded the group was serious enough. The exiled general who heads the party has not yet arrived in Iraq.

Colonel Nouri has decided to join the Communist Party. "The Communist Party has done nothing shameful. They struggled against the regime," he said.

For a population that has been ruled by one party for more than three decades, the sudden eruption of grassroots politics may be a bit overwhelming.

Already, improvised offices have sprouted up in Baghdad representing at least three Islamic parties, five Kurdish parties, the Communist party, the INC, an Arab socialist party, the Syrian Baath Party and three other movements headed by exiled military officers who have yet to return home.

The monarchy movement headed by Sharif Ali bin Hussein has six offices. More political parties are sure to open.

Kurdish Democratic Party official Khasro Jaf pulls at a hair on his head.

There is a thin line, he says, as thin as this strand of hair, between democracy and the chaos of the jungle.

He expects the number of parties will shrink in the coming months as the political fervor settles down. For now, he says Iraqis are enjoying their first taste of political freedom.