Occupation Forces Halt Elections Throughout Iraq
By William Booth and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 28, 2003; Page A20
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 handpicked 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 are not making good on their promise
to bring greater freedom and democracy to a country dominated for three
decades by 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 postwar 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 canceled last week. "What does that tell you, eh? 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 the capital, Baghdad, U.S. officials never
scheduled elections for a city government, but have said they are
forming neighborhood councils that at some point will play a role in
the 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
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. If you ask
most Iraqis today if they have a government, they will tell you, no,
what we have is an occupation, and that is a dangerous thing for the
people to think."
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 postwar chaos has left Iraq
unprepared to stage popular elections in most cities.
postwar 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." Bremer was referring to
members of Hussein's Baath Party and religiously oriented political
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 is 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.
military contends that these people have been vetted and were not in
leadership positions under the old government or associated with 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 artillery colonel. The protesters'
banners read: "Canceled elections are evidence of bad intentions" and
"O America, where are promises of freedom, elections, and democracy?"
At Friday prayers in Najaf, Sadr told the faithful at the shrine of
Imam Ali, "I call for free elections that will represent all Iraqi
opinion, far away from the influence of those who have intervened."
In Samarra, a two-hour drive north of Baghdad, the selection of a new
mayor and city council by delegates was postponed twice, and finally
canceled 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 from Kansas City, Mo., which is charged with
Butler said the city had been planning a
caucus to pick a mayor when the order came down from Maj. Gen. Odierno.
"He said, basically, stop," Butler said.
A timetable for elections in Samarra, Butler said, "is six months at least, but I'm just guessing."
Butler said he sympathized with Iraqis who are upset over the
cancellation of the elections. "We would like to see some kind of
democratic system, too," he said. But for now, he said, the Iraqis need
to be satisfied with "baby steps."
Like almost all of the
Army civil affairs soldiers in Iraq, Butler and his six-man team do not
speak Arabic, and are confronted with a bewildering environment in
Samarra that includes seven major and 14 minor tribal sheiks -- plus
Muslim clergy and a more secular middle class that is trying to steer
clear of rule by either the religious leaders or the tribes.
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 postwar
Mohammad, whose brother was executed by Hussein,
now runs the city with the help of another brother and another former
army commander, who serve as his deputies. 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."
many citizens in Samarra, which has a large middle class and a large
drug manufacturing plant, and is unusually prosperous for an Iraqi
town, have complained about Mohammad.
In Hussein's home
town of Tikrit, the American in charge is Army Lt. Col. Steve Russell,
whose mission is not to establish democracy in the region, but to hunt
down remnants of the former government and others who are attacking
That is understandable, said Nabel Darwish
Mohamed, 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. That will calm things down, I think."
added, "Fine, we embrace the Americans, we want to see the security.
But we want them to move aside and let us have our own voices. We have
waited a long time for this and we are growing tired of the waiting,
Chandrasekaran reported from Baghdad.
2003 The Washington Post Company
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