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Democracy from scratch

One Baghdad neighborhood's halting steps toward self-rule

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Maj. Arthur Vidal, a big, mustachioed soldier with the gusto of an operatic baritone, strides helmeted and flak-jacketed into the dingy foyer of the Sadr City District Advisory Council building, and sums up the scene before him.

"Ah, welcome to Democracy 101!" booms the civil-affairs officer, before adding, "Make that Democracy 101 - Phase 2."

On this recent afternoon, the US-created district council for Sadr City - a rundown section of Baghdad with exhausted infrastructure, 2 million people, and too few jobs - is to elect a new chairman. The previous chairman, Mohammed al-Kaabi, was shot and killed on Nov. 9 when he got in a shoving match with a US soldier controlling the council building's entrance. Proclaiming his honor was being questioned, Mr. Kaabi had demanded to enter the building without once again submitting to what he saw as a humiliating weapons search.

The killing of Kaabi led to protest marches, a brief boycott by council members, and an introduction for the Americans working in Sadr City to the Iraqi concepts of honor, blood money, and public apology. It also caused a setback to the process of local democracy building.

As a guerrilla war continues to ratchet up all around them, Major Vidal and a battalion of other US soldiers here are on the front line of a different battle for Iraq - the one that is supposed to turn the country into a democracy, beginning with representative local government.

That mission has taken on a new urgency with the US recently bowing to Iraqi demands to assume full sovereignty quicker than what the Americans originally envisaged. Now a provisional national government is to be created by July 1, through selection of national representatives that at least at this point - unless the US decides to go with full elections - is to involve local councils like Sadr City's.

But as the tenuous progress of the Sadr City District Advisory Council, or DAC, demonstrates, cultivating democracy is not quick business: roots may eventually grow deep, but there's no guarantee the seeds will sprout in the first place.

A passionate believer in the system
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