Thursday, May 22, 2003
Iraq's Post-Saddam Landscape Is Diverse
By HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press Writer
May 22, 2003, 4:14 PM EDT
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For a generation they were forbidden, and any whiff of political activity could have meant punishment, even death. But now, in the maze of postwar Iraq, political parties are flourishing -- and facing a future they are determined to help shape.
More than 100 newly created parties have sprung up since Saddam Hussein was toppled last month, offering Iraqis accustomed to one-party rule everything from Islamic militancy to monarchy, from ethnic nationalism to Christian fundamentalism.
The explosion of political energy in today's Iraq is a response to decades of authoritarian rule and a celebration of newfound freedom. It also appears to be an expression of the anarchy that is prevailing in the absence of a government.
Gauging the extent of support enjoyed by any of the new parties is difficult until a general election is held -- something not expected to happen for more than a year at the earliest. Iraq has been without any national government since U.S. forces captured Baghdad on April 9.
What is evident, however, is that many of the parties barely exist.
One is based in a mosque. Another is using a mall where Saddam's wife Sajida shopped at expensive boutiques. Many squat in offices that once belonged to intelligence and security agencies. Others use homes of senior Baath officials who fled with their families.
Some amount to nothing more than a paper sign hung outside a building, and others enjoy the support of only a few dozen relatives and friends.
"I can show you photos and a video that prove that more than 1,000 people received me when I returned to Iraq," Aziz al-Yasseri, leader of the Iraqi Democratic Movement, a new party, tells a visitor hopefully.
Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian parties are adopting programs designed to exclusively serve the interests of their ethnicities -- including an Assyrian Christian fundamentalist party in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. The Iraqi Islamic Party wants its own pure religious state. The Constitutional Monarchy Movement wants to restore the royal system that was toppled in 1958.
The emergence of so many new groups comes as powerful Iraqi politicians return from years in exile -- or, in two cases, from the northern Kurdish enclave -- to take what they believe are their rightful places atop a new government.
Two powerful Kurdish organizations, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, are part of a core group talking with the U.S.-led occupation force about future governance. So is the Iraqi National Congress, the influential group long headed from London by Ahmad Chalabi.
Not everyone is happy about the returnees taking a front seat. Some of the new parties are vigorously promoting the notion that they pose a danger to the new Iraq.
"Members of my party are Iraqis who don't include anyone who had fled the country," boasts Nouri Jaber Ali, leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Iraq.
Iraq, a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, existed for nearly 400 years as three separate Ottoman provinces until Britain joined them together in 1920. The country is deeply divided along tribal fault lines that Saddam tried to deepen so he could consolidate his support.
When a British-backed monarchy was installed in 1921, a pluralistic political system was tried. Fifty-eight Cabinets came and went before the monarchy was toppled in a coup in 1958. Ten years later, Saddam's Baath Party took power for good.
In the years since, some parties worked covertly to undermine the Baathists. Some of those appearing on the streets today are old experts at that game -- like Ali Hussein Abu Seif of the Iraqi Communist Party.
He introduces himself as a comrade and a party leader, but he doesn't stand on ceremony, wearing trousers rolled up to just below the knees and a pair of plastic slippers to receive visitors.
Only weeks ago, he would have been a perfect candidate for Saddam's gallows. Now that Iraq's dictator is gone, he sits in a large, wood-paneled office in a riverside building that once belonged to Saddam's Baath party.
"My party runs in my blood," declares Abu Seif, who hid from Saddam's dreaded security agents for more than 20 years, making a living as a clothes retailer while he recruited members and organized underground cells.
Where political parties tread, demanding constituencies soon follow. And lawless, jumbled Baghdad is unlikely to be an exception. Just ask Abdul-Jabar al-Izzawi, 75, a retired businessman smoking a water pipe at Baghdad's al-Shahbandar cafe.
"What is the benefit of having freedom and so many parties," he asks, "if I cannot even feel safe coming to this cafe and returning home every day?"
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Associated Press Correspondent Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 2003, The Associated Press
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