Political parties sprouting in Iraq
By Elizabeth A. Neuffer, Globe Staff, 4/23/03
BAGHDAD -- For decades, there was only one political choice in Iraq: the ruling regime's Ba'ath Party, which dictated every Iraqi's life through repression, violence, and fear.
But with the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, so many political parties have suddenly emerged in Baghdad that it took Mustafa Hasan nearly all of yesterday just to visit them.
"I'm looking for freedom and democracy -- this is what I've missed," said the 35-year-old sports teacher while at Iraqi Communist Party headquarters, number four on his list. "I'm going to see them all, and then choose."
These days, political barnstorming is in great supply, even if electricity is not. Every established Iraqi political opposition group -- and some that were formed on the spot -- has opened ad hoc headquarters here, settling into looted former government buildings to position themselves for this country's future.
Already, there is a dizzying panoply of parties anxious to fill the vacuum left by the Ba'ath Party's collapse. There are Islamist religious parties, like the Iraqi Islamic Party. There are ethnic groups, like the Assyrian Democratic Movement. There are new and more obscure groups, like the National Front for Iraqi Intellectuals, led by a friend of one of Hussein's sons.
Many here hail the appearance of new political parties, saying they signal a reawakening of ancient Iraqi democratic traditions, like the political consultative bodies consulted by King Gilgamesh, in the epic written before 2000 BC.
"There are 25 million people in Iraq," said Ali al Nashmi, a political commentator. "And now there are 25 million ideas."
Others caution that simply having a smorgasbord of political parties does not guarantee democracy -- one of the promises made by the Bush administration to the Iraqi people before the US-led war.
"We have parties with no democratic traditions but want to show themselves to be an active group," said Wamid Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "I know parties that have declared themselves that have no political agenda and hardly any members."
Years of repression have left democratic traditions here a little rusty. Political ideologies, for example, are amorphous at best.
"We believe in the unity of humanity, that all of us are the servants of God," said Nazar Tukan of the Iraqi Islamic Party, when asked what his party planned to do for the Iraqi people. "We stand for human rights, for helping people, for rebuilding our country."
Yet some groups have political ambitions, if not a growing following. At least one defaced poster of Hussein had photographs of a leading Shi'ite cleric pasted over it, an unsubtle hint by some about who should rule. The cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-based Shi'ite opposition group.
Just when democratic elections will take place here is unclear. The United States, which has assumed the role of providing law and order in Iraq, has named Jay Garner, a retired general, as postwar administrator until an interim government can be appointed, with elections to follow.
Thus, political parties are jockeying for position, seeking to be among those recognized by Garner and his team, if not by the Iraqi people.
Many of Iraq's political parties were formed by exiles abroad, and hence better known in Washington than on the streets of Baghdad. But political groups that claim they went underground, risking persecution to keep their political traditions alive, argue that they are more legitimate.
"We are the oldest political party, we are mobilizing people who speak about democracy, and we think there should be a place for a communist in the next Cabinet," said Sahkir al Dujaily, spokesman for the Iraqi Communist Party, founded in 1934. The group was not invited to a recent gathering of Iraqi political organizations in Nasiriyah.
But political parties recognized by Washington are finding they have little name recognition in Iraq, so they are doing all they can to raise their profile.
The Assyrian Democratic Movement, for example, offers free phone calls on its satellite telephones to potential members, a boon to Iraqis without phone service who are desperate to inform relatives abroad that they are alive. The group represents 6 million Assyrians in Iraq and is calling for constitutional protections, if not autonomy, for its people, according to an American spokesman here, Ken Joseph Jr.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two key parties in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, is taking a similar approach. It has opened small headquarters in almost every Baghdad neighborhood, all of which are offering newspapers in Arabic that are snapped up by Iraqis eager for news.
"We have been living under democracy for 13 years," said Sirwan al Jaff, sitting in one of the group's ad hoc offices, consisting of a desk and three chairs underneath a concrete overhang. "We came to bring it with us here."
For now, party members are busier wielding shovels and trash cans to clear their new headquarters than they are talking about democratic principles. All have laid claim to abandoned former government buildings.
The Assyrian Democratic Movement, for example, is in the former headquarters of the Fedayeen Saddam, with little more than two couches to its name. The Iraqi Islamic Party's headquarters is a former neighborhood clubhouse with shattered windows.
The Iraqi Communist Party claimed the gilded rooms of a former military headquarters. "This is the wealth of our nation," said spokesman Dujaily, waving a hand toward a cigarette-burned couch underneath a rococo ceiling. "It belongs to the people."
Yesterday afternoon, 30 or so Iraqis huddled at Communist Party headquarters, firing questions about the group's plans.
One asked: Was this the same Communist Party as that of the past? Another wanted to know: Will those in power under Hussein seize that power again? A third wondered: Can you return my farmland?