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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 October, 2003, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Birth pains of Iraq's democracy

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online correspondent in Baghdad

How far have Iraqi politics developed in the six months since US army swept Saddam Hussein from power?

Angry Shia demonstrate outside the CPA building
There have been almost daily anti-American rallies in Iraq
Most Iraqis appear profoundly sceptical about their American rulers' promises to restore democracy after decades of totalitarian dictatorship.

That is not surprising given how little power has been put into the hands of the politicians and religious leaders who make up the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

The council's job is to appoint ministers who run day-to-day affairs, develop some limited policies of its own and oversee the writing of a new constitution for the county.

Life in Iraq was bad under Saddam but it is worse in the hands of the Americans. They should immediately hand over to United Nations
Suraj Chhetri, Nepal

When the constitution is written and ratified by a popular referendum, elections can be held and the US- and British-led occupying power, known as Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), can disappear.

First test

CPA chief Paul Bremer has called the council the "most broadly representative governing body in Iraq's history".

The IGC is situated within the CPA's ring of steel and concrete known as the Green Zone
The IGC is situated within the CPA's ring of steel - the Green Zone

Unfortunately for him, Iraqis have taken that on board and are investing considerable hope in the council dealing with their acute problems - insecurity on the streets, horrendous unemployment and the full return of basic services like electricity and clean water.

Now they are also looking for their representatives to bring influence to bear on a matter of the country's international relations.

Iraqis - Shia, Sunni and Kurd, all for different reasons - want the IGC to deter the deployment of troops from neighbouring Turkey as part of the occupying army.

It is the first real test of a political system which may have to last for years before power is transferred and the occupying army leaves.

Federal question

If constitutional issues seem somewhat removed from the day-to-day ones that plague Iraq, arriving at a new constitution remains the biggest question of all as far as Iraq's political future is concerned.

An Iraqi Kurdish soldier leaves after afternoon prayers at the Grand Mosque in the Kurdish-controlled town of Dohuk, northern Iraq
Many Iraqis fear the Kurds will declare independence

Members of multiple ethnic and religious groups all have their own idea of what the new Iraqi state should look like and the fear is they will become bogged down in wrangling over it.

Many Kurds favour a federal system that will give them some level of autonomy - a solution feared by other Iraqi groups (not to mention Turkey) as the first step to a breakaway Kurdish state.

The religious/secular debate is also a concern to Iraqis of all persuasions.

Meanwhile, recent Iraqi reports citing IGC sources talk about a Lebanese-style division of top government jobs along ethnic lines.

That means a Sunni Muslim president, wielding less power than a Shia Muslim prime minister, while the top Kurd would be parliamentary speaker.

Of course that arrangement did not stop Lebanon descending into years of civil war, and to this day its top politicians only enter office with the blessing of power broker Syria.

Taking stock

To think that less than a year ago, political opposition in Iraq could mean a death sentence, it is remarkable to see the new political freedom beginning to take root in this country.

A statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad
Anything is better than Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis say

It is true that many people still express contempt for some the former exiled opposition figures like Ahmed Chalabi and former Baathist officer Iyyad Alawi who were brought in by the Americans despite not having constituencies in the country.

Mr Chalabi is widely considered to be a crook, having been convicted in his absence for $300m embezzlement of Petra Bank in Jordan (a case he insists was politically motivated).

But the reputations of such men pale into insignificance compared with Saddam Hussein, who plundered a whole country for years to the tune of billions of dollars.

That means that most Iraqis appear to give the process a chance to succeed.

But they do want results and they want the US occupation to end as soon as possible.

"Iraqis care a lot about their honour and their dignity," said one man on the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday. "And the presence of the Americans here takes away our dignity."

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