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Democracy from scratch

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In Sadr City, the district council is beginning to tackle some key local issues, like price gouging by propane cooking-gas distributors, sewage service, and school security. But at the meeting last week to elect a new chairman, progress seems slow. After a moment of silence for the fallen chairman, council members hear a long apology for Kaabi's death.

Calling the killing a "tragic event," Maj. George Sarabia tells the council that Kaabi's death "represents a great loss for the family, the community, and the people of Iraq." The director of community relations and psychological operations for the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment camped at Sadr City goes on to say that, while an investigation into the death is ongoing, "I can assure you the coalition is moving toward a fair settlement."

Then Major Sarabia, a gentle Texan from Houston, reminds the council members - who range from tribal leaders in robes and headdress to shop owners and teachers - that even while the investigation continues, they have work to do. "The welfare of more than 2 million people depends on the leadership in this room," he says. "It's very important [that your] voice represents the needs of Sadr City."

Before the election of a new chairman, Major Gass reads from a new citywide procedural manual that gives the steps of the nomination and election processes. The University of Houston teacher and resident of Humble, Texas, pauses frequently to allow an interpreter to repeat in Arabic the rules of order he is explaining. By the end of the session, a new chairman has been elected, and the council chamber - a stark room with plastic patio chairs - has been named in honor of the fallen Kaabi.

Democracy is 'exciting'

Yet despite the small steps, some see progress. Farhan Gabbar is one member who finds the council system "a good experience for the Iraqi people." Uncomplaining as he sits in a sliver of an office poring over job applications with only a small window behind him for light, Mr. Gabbar says, "It's a new kind of democracy, something unknown but exciting for us."

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