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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 08:41 GMT
Iraqis take small steps to democracy
By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News Online in Basra, Iraq

After years of living under one political party Iraqis face a number of challenges adjusting to democratic rule.

"For the people of Iraq, democracy is against the law," says teacher Abdul-Razak Hameed.

He fears it will take a long time to undo years of living under corruption and violence.

Iraq democracy
Iraqis take lessons in democracy
To help move the process along, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) is running democracy workshops in Basra.

They range from highly developed discussions with lawyers and law students about the country's embryonic constitution, to town hall meetings.

"People's ideas here of democracy can be very sophisticated," said Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) political advisor Nikesh Mehta.

"However they have no experience of putting them into practice."

Farkhanda Chaudhry, one of the organisers, said participation in the workshops had been enthusiastic.

"They've never had an opportunity to discuss publicly what democracy means and what it means for Iraq.

"We're giving them the opportunity to discuss it from different viewpoints, including from an Islamic one."

Religious differences

Of the five or six biggest emerging political parties, two have religious bases, including Shia Muslim group Sciri.

People in the workshops have expressed concerns that democracy may open up Iraq to religious fundamentalism.

iraq democracy
The workshops consider democracy from an Islamic viewpoint
"It's a fear for women, especially over the hijab issue," said Mrs Chaudhry.

She said some people had argued that Iraq did not need a constitutional law because it had Islamic law.

Thirty Iraqis, mostly teachers, have been trained to run the workshops as part of the DFID project and the training has included how to deal with the Islamic law question.

However, evidence from local elections is that people are not electing religious people but educated technical people, according to DFID.

Of the estimated 150 political parties in the country - which includes small ones - some are religious, and others attract their supporters from tribal groups, backed up by militia.

In addition, others prove popular among the estimated 20,000 refugees who have returned to Iraq. Many fled either because of the Iran-Iraq war, or due to the clearing of the marshlands and Saddam Hussein's brutalisation of the south.

In the latest meeting with the electricity directors they were really taking charge - they were telling us what to do
Patrick Nixon,
coalition governor of the four southern provinces

They have returned without identity papers so cannot get access to rations, housing, education or healthcare. The political parties provide them with social welfare in return for their vote.

The first national elections will not be held until December 2005 but there is evidence that democratic ideals are already taking hold.

In the past, all civil institutions, like hospitals, schools and electricity companies, were run on direct orders from Baghdad and the directors did not have to think for themselves.

Patrick Nixon, the coalition governor for the four southern provinces, said they were now embracing the chance to make decisions.

"In the latest meeting with the electricity directors they were really taking charge. They were telling us what to do. It was the same thing with the health directors."

Workers' rights

And there is evidence trade unions are being formed. Under Saddam Hussein there was one national trade union, the Iraqi Federation, run by the Baath Party, with every union president appointed by Saddam.

Now, the transitional authority law allows for freedom of association and groups are springing up, particularly in the professions.

It is not clear how much influence workers' trade unions - which used to be part of the Iraq Federation - will have on pay negotiations, for example, but anecdotal evidence suggests they are already going through significant readjustment to their new freedom.

In Nasiriya province in the south of the country, the first local elections have already been held.

Governor Sabir Roumagahal said it was a "source of pride" that they had taken a "unique step" in Iraq's path to democracy.

"But the people are not satisfied with that. They need more involvement in the electoral process."

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