Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Iraq sees the birth of party politics

A FREE-FOR-ALLWith elections not likely for over a year, power grabbing and alliances among political parties has become the norm


With raucous new political movements sprouting across the country, Iraq's organized political parties rushed to complete a plan on Wednesday for an interim assembly that would satisfy the increasingly insistent public demand for a working government.

The party leaders, many of them newly returned exiles, were expected to present a formula to US officials as early as yesterday, in advance of the first visit of Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's newly appointed proconsul to Iraq.

As the parties vied for position, chiefly over whether to guarantee a dominant role for the country's long-repressed Shiite Muslim majority, ordinary Iraqis were experiencing their own political awakening. Some were energized, others bewildered as they watched parties commandeer buildings, scrawl their slogans on walls and muscle into neighborhood clinics to take credit for providing services.

"I don't believe in parties," said Dr. Muhammad Abdulkhader, a volunteer in a clinic set up after the war that has since been claimed by the Islamic Party of Iraq.

"Political parties are all self-serving," he said.

With services like garbage collection and law enforcement still in a state of virtual collapse, politics may provide little more than a distraction from the more immediate problems faced by Iraqis.

In Basra, the country's second-largest city, which has suffered from overflowing sewage and a lack of clean water, the World Health Organization on Wednesday reported an increase in cholera cases linked to an overflow of sewage and persistent lack of clean water.

Shortages of gasoline and cooking oil continued even as Thamir Ghadhban, the newly appointed head of Iraq's oil sector, pledged to raise oil production to two-thirds of prewar levels by the end of the month to cover domestic needs.

Whether or not former president Saddam Hussein is still alive or still in Iraq, Iraqis have seized on their new freedom to express themselves. After surviving decades of a government that made the ruling Baath Party a tool of repression and the only legal political outlet, many people have plunged into politics in ways both viewed as silly and sublime by outside obeservers.

Bearded religious men claiming to represent the Hawza, the Shiite religious authority based in the southern city of Najaf, have applied their political energy to occupying hospitals and food-distribution centers.

Posters of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, an important political figure who heads the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have suddenly appeared on lampposts and street signs all over Baghdad.

Hakim, whose representatives have been horse-trading on his behalf with other new leaders, is expected to return to Iraq from exile in Iran this week.

The Dawa Party, a rival Shiite group, has taken over a former government social club. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the main Kurdish groups, has seized at least five compounds.

A few men calling themselves the Kurdistan Freedom Congress have installed themselves in a lovely abandoned town house overlooking the Tigris River that was once occupied by a senior officer of the Republican Guard.

A respected former foreign minister of Iraq, Adnan Pachachi, has also returned from more than 30 years in exile this week. He announced on Wednesday that he planned a grass-roots campaign to sound out Iraqi public opinion, but said he would not participate in any interim government that was not elected.

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