Iraqi councils give residents a chance to discuss issues
Stars and Stripes July 30, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — While the newly formed Governing Council for Iraq grabbed the media spotlight a few weeks ago, many are still debating whether the body truly represents the Iraqi people.
There are hundreds of similar bodies across the country — built mainly through the efforts of junior officers in the Army — that operate in hundreds of neighborhoods on a daily basis.
There are 88 neighborhood advisory councils in Baghdad alone. None of them existed a few months ago. Representatives from each neighborhood were chosen to form eight district councils. From there, a few were picked to form the city council, which is currently meeting twice each week.
“The soldiers who formed these councils might not have had a lot of formal training on how to do such things,” said Lt. Col. Joe Rice, an Army reservist who was mayor of Glendale, Colo., before getting activated and told to head to the Middle East. “But the Army is very good at developing resourceful and adaptable leaders.”
The councils aren’t exactly running the areas they’re responsible for.
Rather, they serve as a forum to discuss issues and try to resolve problems. They make recommendations to the military units in their areas or to the appropriate Iraqi ministries.
“This will get Iraqis to respond to Iraqis,” said Lt. Col. P.J. Dermer, another officer assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority. “Instead of 10,000 screaming Iraqis in front of a ministry building, they have a body now where hopefully they can work things through”
A former military adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, Dermer was among a handful of people assigned to coordinate the formation of advisory councils in Baghdad. He and Amal Rassam, an Iraqi-American professor currently on a one-year sabbatical in Iraq, traveled around the city for months, trying to help out in individual neighborhoods.
“Hotel rooms, school rooms, underground bunkers … it was incredible the type of venues we went to,” Dermer said. “The first meeting there would be three or four people there. The next time 30. The next meeting there would be 100.”
For Rassam, an anthropology professor at the City University of New York, it was her first experience working with the military.
“In all, I have found them to be a most impressive group,” she said. “Sincere, dedicated, and hard-working despite a difficult and often hostile environment.”
“These advisory councils have already had an impact,” Rice said.
“The important thing is that we have started the representative process.”