Entertaining a new epoch: Adel Darwish reports on developments on the streets of Baghdad and Basra.

Author:Darwish, Adel
Position:Iraq
 
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Less than three weeks after the shoes of ordinary Iraqis slapped images of the face of Saddam Hussein who, for over two decades, looked down on them from gigantic posters--300 Iraqi delegates, representing the widest possible spectrum of political shades anywhere in the region, gathered for their first truly free meeting in Baghdad at the end of April.

Inside the city hall, it was a carnival of free speech and democracy. With Iraqis returning from exile displaying debating skills and other democratic tools they had picked up in the West. However, the Iraqis who endured Saddam's dictatorship--and many paid a heavy price, including the loss of entire families, were no less articulate and even more forthcoming with their views than the 'sophisticated' returnees.

Not just in Baghdad--which was still largely lawless as The Middle East went to print--but across the country, release from the iron grip of the Baath party has resulted in a political free-for-all.

At the April meeting observers counted the presence of more than 60 parties who spent Saddam's reign of terror in exile. Some backed by ragtag militias, others armed only with sophisticated printing facilities. Other groups, armed with nothing more than paint spray cans, made their opinions clear on walls and public monuments. Dozens of new local parties have been formed, while others already in existence 'underground', have also emerged. Even the Baathists have formed new parties under new names.

Many groups, especially those with tribal affiliations, are resentful of the returnees. One of the dilemmas for US President George Bush's project to implement liberal democracy in Iraq is the fact the Islamists, both Sunni and Shi'a, seem to be more organised than any one else.

The Shi'a have a history of organisation and enjoy the backing and support of Iran. The Sunnis are reported to receive finance and help from certain Gulf states who fear an Iranian backed Shi'a theology in Baghdad.

GARNER'S INTERIM GOVERNMENT

Last December--three months before the war--the exiled opposition, after endless arguments, had formed a 65-member committee to act as the nucleus of any new government.

After liberation, the Americans and most Iraqis insisted on expanding the forum to include Iraqis from inside Iraq. They have subsequently discussed widening the forum to 150 members, embracing the full range of factions, sects, and ethnic groupings. A meeting to choose an interim government is scheduled for early June...

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