Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Baghdad councilors are falling victim to attacks, one by one

THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

Gunmen have killed six Bagh-dad councilors in the two weeks since the US occupation formally ended, sending a wave of fear through Iraq's grass-roots politicians.

"I am not sure if I can continue," a member of the council in Mansour, the capital's wealthiest suburb, said on Friday. He had been happy in a first interview to have his name used but changed his mind after Jinan Joseph, a fellow councilor, was gunned down in his own home the night before.

Unlike the frequent attacks on Iraqi police stations and the assassinations of a handful of senior politicians, the killings of councilors go largely unreported in the Baghdad media.

Yet they are the most vulnerable group in Iraqi society.

"Sixty-one of [the] roughly 750 councilors have been killed in the last year. That's about 8 percent," the anonymous councilor said.

Councilors had hoped that with the transfer of sovereignty they would gain a respite, but the rate of killing has increased. With the installation of a government, they now fear marginalization as well.

At a recent meeting of Mansour council, which has 20 men and two women members, the only visitors were a reporter and a group of US army officers responsible for security patrols.

The meeting started with a minute's silence for two of the slain councilors and an interpreter for the US captain who was shot as she left for work last week.

"What is our role now that there is an Iraqi government?" one councilor asked.

Ali Radhi, an engineer chosen by the various district councils to be Baghdad's mayor, recounted how he had approached a minister in the new government for extra finance for the capital.

"He told me, `Go to the Americans. They appointed you.'"

Another councilor said: "They tell us we are traitors because we are with the Americans, but they're the ones who were really appointed. We were elected."

Baghdad's system of government was one of the occupation authority's proudest creations.

In contrast to the centralized dictatorship of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, it was meant to bring government close to people and show Iraqis that even though there was not yet an elected national government, local bodies were already in action to help solve everyday problems.

To choose the councils, the occupation authority decided on a system of local caucuses, to be organized by the Research Triangle Institute, a private US company contracted by the US government.

Using public notices and radio announcements in the spring of last year, they advised citizens of an open meeting in every neighborhood.

The few who turned up chose batches of eight people for neighborhood councils. These then voted among themselves for members of the next tier, the 12 district councils. Others went on to the top tier, the Baghdad city council.

The US-backed authority supervised the process to prevent Baathists re-emerging, but their controlling hand and the fact that many of the councilors who attended the caucuses were already on the US payroll as guards, translators and subcontractors affected the councils' image.

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