Sun. Jun. 29, 2003. | Updated at 11:22 AM
 
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Jun. 29, 2003. 09:52 AM
AKRAM SALEH/REUTERS
U.S. soldiers search for weapons on the outskirts of Baghdad yesterday. U.S. forces found the bodies of two soldiers north of the capital, while a soldier was killed in a Baghdad neighbourhood.
 
Iraq war special section  
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Photo Gallery: After the fall  
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Iraqi elections cancelled by U.S.
Army hand-picks its own mayors
Frustration builds among citizens

WILLIAM BOOTH AND RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

SAMARRA, Iraq—U.S. military commanders have ordered a halt to local elections and self-rule in provincial cities and towns across Iraq, choosing instead to install their own hand-picked mayors and administrators, many of whom are former Iraqi military leaders.

The decision to deny Iraqis a direct role in selecting municipal governments is creating anger and resentment among aspiring leaders and ordinary citizens, who say the U.S.-led occupation forces aren't making good on their promise to bring greater freedom and democracy to a country dominated for three decades by former president Saddam Hussein.

The go-slow approach to representative government in at least a dozen provincial cities is especially frustrating to younger, middle-class professionals, who say they want to help their communities emerge from post-war chaos and to let, as one put it, "Iraqis make decisions for Iraq."

"They give us a general," said Bahith Sattar, a biology teacher and tribal leader in Samarra who was a candidate for mayor until that election was cancelled last week. "First of all, an Iraqi general? They lost the last three wars! They're not even good generals. And they know nothing about running a city."

The most recent order to stop planning for elections was made by Maj.-Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which controls the northern half of Iraq. It follows similar decisions by the 3rd Infantry Division in central Iraq and those of British commanders in the south.

In Baghdad, U.S. officials never scheduled elections for a city government but have said they are forming neighbourhood councils that at some point will play a role in selection of a municipal government.

L. Paul Bremer, the civil administrator of Iraq, said in an interview that there is "no blanket prohibition" against self-rule. "I'm not opposed to it, but I want to do it a way that takes care of our concerns. ... Elections that are held too early can be destructive. It's got to be done very carefully."

Iraqi critics of the policy shift say the American and British forces are primarily hurting themselves by smothering aspiring leaders who would benefit from the chance to work more closely with Westerners. In addition, they say, the occupation authorities are fostering a dependent, passive mindset among Iraqis and leaving no one but themselves to blame for the crime, faltering electricity and general misrule Iraqis see in their daily lives.

Sattar, the would-be candidate in Samarra, said, "The new mayors do not have to be perfect. But I think that by allowing us to establish our own governments, many of the problems today would be solved."

Occupation authorities initially envisioned the creation of local assemblies, composed of several hundred delegates who would represent a city or town's tribes, clergy, middle class, women and ethnic groups. Those delegates would select a mayor and city council.

That process was employed successfully in the northern city of Kirkuk, but U.S. civilian and military occupation officials now say post-war chaos has left Iraq unprepared to stage popular elections in most cities.

"In a post-war situation like this, if you start holding elections, the people who are rejectionists tend to win," Bremer said. "It's often the best-organized who win, and the best-organized right now are the former Baathists and to some extent the Islamists."

He was referring to members of Saddam's Baath Party and religiously oriented political leaders.

Bremer and other U.S. officials are fearful that Islamic leaders such as Moqtada Sadr, a young Shiite Muslim cleric popular on the streets of Baghdad, and Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, leader of the Iranian-supported Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, would be best positioned to field winning candidates.

Bremer promises that as soon as an Iraqi constitution is written and a national census taken, local and national elections will follow. But that process could take months.

Ten weeks into the occupation, the cities and towns outside of Baghdad are largely administered by former Iraqi military and police officers and people who had close ties to the Baath Party. Iraqi generals and police colonels, for example, are now mayors of a dozen cities, including Samarra, Najaf, Tikrit, Balad and Baqubah.

The U.S. military contends these people have been vetted and were not in leadership positions under the old government or associated with its crimes.

In Najaf last week, several hundred demonstrators took to the streets to demand elections and the removal of mayor Abdul Munim Abud, a former Iraqi artillery colonel. The protesters' banners read: "Cancelled elections are evidence of bad intentions" and "O America, where are promises of freedom, elections, and democracy?"

In Samarra, about 120 kilometres north of Baghdad, the selection of a new mayor and city council by delegates was postponed twice, and finally cancelled late last week.

"There will be no elections for the foreseeable future," said Sgt. Jeff Butler of the U.S. Army's 418th Civil Affairs Battalion, which is charged with running the city.

The current mayor of Samarra is Shakir Mahmud Mohammad, a retired general in the Iraqi army, who came into power here in April as U.S. forces arrived in the city.

Mohammad was selected by a council representing the seven major tribes in and around Samarra, and by most accounts did an admirable job keeping order in the city in the post-war weeks.

Butler described Mohammad "as a very personable guy, with a decent amount of legitimacy, and he is basically somebody we thought we can work with."

In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, Lt.-Col. Steve Russell's mission is not to establish democracy in the region, but to hunt down remnants of the former government and others who are attacking U.S. troops.

That's understandable, said Nabel Darwesh Mohammad, the mayor of nearby Balad, who is a former colonel in the Iraqi police corps.

"But the American soldiers must understand that security comes also from giving the people their own leaders, their own powers."

WASHINGTON POST


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