Democracy Begins to Sprout in Iraq ; Political Parties - from Liberal Democrats to Islamists - Rush to Gain a Foothold

Article excerpt

Up from the rubble of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, the first tentative seedlings of democracy are poking their heads, as political parties of every shape and form race to put down roots in the new Iraq.

Commandeering abandoned buildings, putting up flags and banners to announce their presence, and signing up new members, communists, monarchists, Islamists, liberal democrats, and army generals are taking advantage of freedoms that their country has not known for decades.

Some of that freedom is the fruit of the anarchy that still prevails in Iraq, with no functioning government, few public services, and wide uncertainty among ordinary citizens about what their future holds.

The disorder extends to the nascent democracy.

Jassem Hamed has set up a branch office of the US-backed Iraqi National Congress in the cramped reception area of a former Baghdad passport office that was burned, looted, and trashed. While his colleagues make tea in the courtyard on a fire fueled by passport records, he explains that he joined the party a week ago, and was given his responsibility because a cousin works as a bodyguard to INC leader Ahmed Chalabi.

He is unclear exactly what his party stands for. "They say the INC will publish a booklet explaining what it is about, and when I read it, if I am convinced, I will stay," he says. "If not, I will leave. For the moment, it is just about democracy."

Across town, Communist Party Central Committee member Adel Khaled voices a more politically astute viewpoint.Recently emerged from five years of underground organizing, he is clearly delighted by the bustle of activity in his makeshift headquarters as the committed and the curious elbow their way to a table piled with clenched fist posters and copies of the party newspaper.

"If people feel secure, if they are allowed to express how they feel, they will come to us," he says confidently. "The party has existed for and from the people so they have been aware of us for a long time."

Iraq does not yet have the interim government that US officials say is planned, and it is not even clear who will be appointed to it, aside from two leading Kurdish parties and the INC.

But already the first flush of democratic excitement is unsettling some participants.

"It is normal ... that people are enthusiastic, because they can express their ideas," says Khasro Jaaf, head of the Baghdad office of the Kurdish Democratic Party. "But there is a hairsbreadth of difference between democracy and the jungle. The longer the Americans stay, the safer it will be for each party to present its ideas."

Others are encouraged by the "anything goes" mood. "There are parties opening up that we have never heard of," says Zaab Sethna, spokesman for the INC. "In general, we think it is a very good thing, a very good sign of the beginnings of civil society."

Mr. Jaaf, an architect with a mane of gray hair and a flamboyant manner, has chosen a Baghdad headquarters for his party after his own style: the marbled mansion once occupied by Saddam Hussein's personal team of palace architects.

Other parties seem to have chosen and occupied other abandoned public buildings with which they feel some affinity: The Communist Party has installed itself in an apartment block that once housed Soviet advisers, and draped it with red banners proclaiming the party slogan - "A free country and a happy people."

The Islamist Dawa party has set up in the Sindbad youth center - its overgrown garden pitted with sandbagged foxholes - and hung a handpainted banner from the fence declaring that "The will of Allah rules."

The INC has established its temporary headquarters in the Iraqi Hunting Club, once a favorite haunt of Saddam's elder son Uday in the capital's posh Mansour district. …