Iraqis Vote for District Council

Amid continuing violence in Iraq, the struggle continues to establish democratic government. In Baquba, a city about an hour north of Baghdad, elections for district council attract only about two percent of potential voters. NPR'S Emily Harris reports.

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In Iraq earlier today, guerrillas attacked a police station and security compound in Fallujah coordinating a bold and bloody prison break that killed at least 21 Iraqis and wounded 33. This was the second such attack on the site this week; about 75 prisoners escaped.

Today was supposed to mark a more optimistic turn of events in that country. The town of Baqubah is holding district council elections. Baqubah is an ethnically mixed town about an hour's drive north of Baghdad where there have been attacks on US forces and their Iraqi allies. The election aims to make the Baqubah district council more ethnically representative and hopefully more legitimate in the eyes of the town. The US is hoping to reconfigure local leadership throughout Iraq before an interim government is scheduled to take power in June. NPR's Emily Harris traveled to Baqubah and filed this report.

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

The radio ads that ran over the past couple of weeks promoting the election aren't exactly a hard sell.

(Soundbite from ad)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: A man reads a series of dates on which first voter training and nominations, then elections will take place. Preregistration was required and the candidates will be nominated from among those voters. Only about 10,000 Baqubah residents have decided to participate, 2 percent of the area's population. Omar Aboud coordinates the efforts.

Mr. OMAR ABOUD: It is small number. It is not the full-fledged elections that some people may ask for, but it is a temporary solution in order to fill the gap, the vacuum in the time being so the system can go on.

HARRIS: Aboud works for Research Triangle Institute or RTI, a firm based in North Carolina and hired by the US government to help carry out the political reconstruction of Iraq. Part of that job is to change the membership of local advisory councils set up last summer by the newly arrived US military. Larry Diamond of Stanford's Hoover Institution is advising the American-led authority in Iraq, the CPA, on what's officially called refreshing local councils.

Mr. LARRY DIAMOND (Hoover Institution): The watchwords have been inclusiveness and responsibility to ensure that people who are esteemed in the community, that those people are given a prominent role, and, yes, that people who are very extreme in their views, very intolerant or who are found to have had, you know, really deep complicity with the previous regime--that they are shuffled out.

HARRIS: Under the original US plan to hand over power to the Iraqis by June 30th, these local councils were to select some of the people who would pick a transitional parliament. That caucus system is now in doubt, but even if it's completely scrapped, the local councils will likely have some role in the transition. RTI's Omar Aboud, a 31-year-old Syrian-Canadian, is trying to get them ready.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: At one meeting, a local sheik is angry that neighborhood advisory boards seem to have more power than the provincial governor. Aboud, one of RTI's few expatriate employees who speaks Arabic, jumps up to assure the sheik everyone's participation is important.

Mr. ABOUD: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Although the US doesn't want to be seen as imposing its style of democracy, Aboud says his advice is rarely rejected. His influence is limited by security concerns.

(Soundbite of gun being loaded)

HARRIS: Everywhere Aboud goes, a well-armed bodyguard goes with him. On the streets of Baqubah, residents know the risks of getting involved with the Americans. Twenty-one-year-old Omar Hatam Ibrahim(ph) says he heard about Baqubah's election to change the district council but he didn't register to vote.

Mr. OMAR HATAM IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) We have more democracy now, but we're losing security, and, of course, that affects people. A lot of people are still afraid of saying their opinion because in the past they would kill you if you spoke, and now they would also kill you.

HARRIS: US officials acknowledge that security, questions of legitimacy and continued anger over a lack of jobs and basic services are all major challenges to creating a stable government in Iraq. Larry Diamond, the adviser to the CPA, says failure would be catastrophic.

Mr. DIAMOND: The alternative to the formation of some kind of democracy that all major groups buy into is not going to be an Egyptian-style or Moroccan- style dictatorship. It's not going to be a, you know, semi-authoritarian regime. I don't even think it's going to be another Saddam. The alternative is going to be a horrific civil war and the intervention of every neighboring power into this mess. This is going to be a combination of Lebanon and the Congo on a catastrophic scale if this effort fails.

HARRIS: The US has budgeted more than 450 million taxpayer dollars to promote democracy in Iraq. Half is supposed to be spent by June 30th. Still, officials say, the development of democracy in Iraq will only be beginning by then.

Emily Harris, NPR News.

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