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Iraqi Rights Activists Hope to Find Support in Democracy Conference - 2004-02-03

Democracy activists from more than 100 countries are meeting in South Africa for the third assembly of the World Movement for Democracy. The conference was originally scheduled for last year, but was postponed because of the war in Iraq. Now, a large group of Iraqi delegates is participating in the meeting, trying to learn lessons from other countries that will help them build their own democratic society.

Most of the Iraqi delegates work with human rights groups and other non-government organizations that have been founded since the fall of Saddam Hussein nine months ago. The very idea of such groups is a new one in Iraq, and few people have any experience with citizen's groups or working in a democratic environment.

Muhanad al-Dulaymi is a prosecutor from central Iraq, and he works with the newly-founded Human Right Association in the city of Babylon.

"We are happy to participate with many delegations from the whole world," he said. "You know that Iraqi people, they don't know anything about experiment of democracy in the world. So now, we listen to everyone, what they are saying, and we try to calculate any information about our local problem."

A few of the Iraqi civic groups are already well-established, including the Iraq Institute for Democracy, which was founded about five years ago in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The group's president, Hussein Sinjani, relocated his headquarters to Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. Mr. Sinjani says the world democracy meeting is helping to strengthen Iraqi civic groups, and helping build a real democracy in Iraq.

"Especially those countries who have been under dictatorship like what we have been through, and how they started the process of democratization," said Mr. Sinjani. "And now, as you heard, we just decided to make a coalition or a network of Iraqi organizations together so that civil society organizations, which are very new in Iraq, to make them stronger, and indeed play their role in the society and in bringing about democracy."

The timing of this conference is particularly appropriate for the Iraqi delegates. Iraqi community leaders back home are working with the coalition authority and the United Nations to decide how the country's next government will be chosen. The coalition wants regional meetings to choose an interim government, and elections some time in the future. A senior Shi'ite Muslim leader, and many other Iraqis, want national elections before the target date for a handover at the end of June. But the coalition says that is impossible for logistical reasons. A United Nations team is expected in Iraq this week to evaluate the situation and make a report to both sides.

But the Iraqi delegates are not just here to learn, they are also here to teach other democracy activists about Iraq and about themselves. Many of the other participants from around the world opposed the U.S. led war in Iraq, and some, especially from neighboring countries, are still skeptical about its outcome. One Iraqi delegate told a group of Middle Eastern democracy activists that a South African delegate had called Saddam Hussein a great hero who fought against Western imperialism, a view that none of the Iraqis at the meeting share.

And so Nihad Habib Hajemi, who runs a women's rights group in the central city of Diwaniyah, says she is spending some of her time educating her fellow participants.

She says she wants to give people a good impression of Iraqi women, because she says Iraqi women are very brave and are fighting for their rights.

But the Iraqis' business at the World Movement for Democracy assembly is not entirely about sharing experiences. They are also looking for financial help. Many participants at the meeting come from major donor organizations in the United States and Europe.

Hussein Sinjari of the Iraq Institute for Democracy is well aware of that.

"We cannot do our work without funding," he explained. "We cannot do our work without resources. And as you know, in Iraq there is no donation culture. So an organization like mine, we can't fund ourselves. We can't get donations because unlike in the west, if your cats have problems or dogs have problems, you go and collect donations.

"We cannot do that for democracy because there is no such a tradition in my society," he continued. "So we need funds, we need funding, and without that we cannot continue our good work."

The Iraqi groups face other challenges aside from funding. They struggle with the same infrastructure problems as all Iraqis do, lack of electricity, lack of reliable phone lines, lack of security. And they are targeted by an insurgency intent on disrupting their work. On the first day of the Durban democracy meeting, the brother of one delegate was killed in a suicide bombing targeting Kurdish political parties in the northern city of Irbil.

Other pro-democracy activists from the Middle East are eagerly watching the Iraqis' progress. Several of them have said that success in building a democracy in Iraq would boost their own efforts to democratize their countries, while failure would deal a severe blow to democracy efforts throughout the region.