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Selections, Not Elections

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
July 1st, 2004

In May 2003, less than a month after the invasion of Iraq was complete, elections for the disputed city of Mosul in the northern Iraq were held. The military allocated 10 of the 18 council seats to the city's Arab majority, with three seats for Kurds, two for Christians, and one each for Turkmen, Assyrian Christians, and Yezidis. But in a pattern that was repeated across Iraq, the members of the council were chosen by a group of about 200 prominent local leaders, not a "one person, one vote" system, thus disenfranchising many local people.

This system of "selections, not elections" was pioneered by North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International, which won a $167 million United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contract to "foster efficient, transparent, and accountable sub-national government that supports the country's transition to sovereignty" in 180 Iraqi cities and towns.

More on RTI

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RTI worked closely with the military occupation authorities to establish these new "democratic" city councils. In December 2003, RTI officials worked with the military in Rumaytha, in the province of Muthanna, to establish a city council.

Initially, posters were placed around town asking for the names of suitable candidates for a town council. The list was vetted by an eight-man council that the occupying American troops appointed in April 2003. The council then invited 100 individuals from that list to town hall to vote on who would sit on the town council. The first vote produced a city manager who then handled the rest of the proceedings, including the creation of a town council that consisted of seven members, each responsible for a different sector, such as health, water and sewage, and security.

The idea was to engage the local people in a semi-popular "appointocracy" at the local level in order to show the world at large that Iraq was taking its first step toward democracy. The system appeared to be deliberately mixing the idea of public participation (anyone could submit names) with a degree of voting (limited to those who had been vetted from the list of submitted names). Everything, however, had to be approved by the military before any final authority was awarded.

The occupation authorities hoped that would then allow them to create a new five-tier council system, which would not reject the American overseers. These neighborhood councils would select district councils, which in turn would select county councils, which would select a provincial council, which, finally, would select a governor.

In fact many Iraqis, believing that they were now free to organize their own affairs, didn’t wait for RTI but went ahead and started to hold their own elections. But in late June, most of the U.S. military commanders, such as Major General Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, and the one in charge of the northern half of Iraq, ordered a halt to local elections and self-rule in favor of U.S. military-appointed city councils.

But the military wasn't careful enough. Iraqi generals and police colonels, who had close ties to the Baath Party, were appointed mayors of a dozen cities, including Samarra, Najaf, Tikrit, Balad, and Baqubah. Mayor Abdul Munim Abud, a former artillery colonel, was appointed mayor of Najaf. Nabel Darwish Mohamed, a former colonel in the Iraqi police corps, was appointed mayor of nearby Balad, while Samarra's mayorship was handed over to Shakir Mahmud Mohammad, a retired general from the Iraqi army.

Iraqis were furious. "They give us a general,” Bahith Sattar, a biology teacher and tribal leader in Samarra who was a candidate for mayor until the election was canceled for the second time, told the Washington Post. “What does that tell you, eh? First of all, an Iraqi general? They lost the last three wars! They're not even good generals. And they know nothing about running a city.

"The new mayors do not have to be perfect. But I think that by allowing us to establish our own governments, many of the problems today would be solved. If you ask most Iraqis today if they have a government, they will tell you, no, what we have is an occupation, and that is a dangerous thing for the people to think.”

Going Backwards

In October 2003, the RTI advisers, led by Amal Rassam, an Iraqi American anthropology professor from New York, arrived with maps and flowcharts to oversee a "selection" process in Taji, a short distance north of Baghdad. There, they discovered that the local people had already chosen their own leaders.

The confusion at RTI was partly the fault of the military, according to RTI's Iraq project manager, Ron Johnson, who traveled to Taji in the early days of the occupation. Johnson described the process to Canadian columnist Naomi Klein.

"The local lieutenant colonel commanding the artillery battalion stationed at the military base there met with the tribal chiefs and wanted a group of people to help set priorities for some projects-school reconstruction and so forth-and needed a group of people so it wouldn't be the U.S. saying, 'These are the schools we're going to rebuild,'” he said. “He needed a group of Iraqis to say, 'These are the schools.'”

Johnson told Klein the selected leadership was comprised mostly of tribal leaders of that area. “As far as anyone could tell, it was a pretty representative group of those tribal chiefs,” he said. “And he basically said, 'You guys, elect yourself a council.' And they did." According to the Washington Post, another election involved 600 men, whose votes were tallied on a blackboard at a girls' school.

When Rassam, the New York anthropology professor, arrived, she was surprised to discover that there were already 11 neighborhood councils in the rural areas and a larger area group that called itself the Taji City Council, consisting mostly of prominent business leaders. "There is a lot of misinformation, competing interests, and high expectations, which need to be reconciled," she said. Because of that, she told the local people to start over using the RTI model.

Saddam Abdul-Rahman Zaidan, a member of the Taji City Council, was very upset. "We will waste a whole month at least, and for what?" he asked. "We feel we are going backwards," another man complained to the Post.

Several local leaders decided not to work with RTI or the military for fear of being seen as collaborators. U.S. soldiers nicknamed one, Sabah Zaidaq, who represented up to half the population of Taji, the "sheik of sheiks. Others, such as Kamal Kiwan Abdul Ridha, the Taji council president, said that RTI 's reorganization was a plot by the Baathists to return to power. "The plan was put by some betrayers connected to the former regime," he alleged.

Patrick Gibbons, a spokesperson for RTI in Baghdad, defended the process: “Regarding "refresher" elections: we did in some cases work to establish more democratic councils than were at first established by military civil affairs personnel, and succeeded in most cases. Judging against an ideal model, much work remains to be accomplished. Judging against the reality of less than one year of Iraqi experience with local councils, much has been accomplished,” he told Corpwatch.

Sadr City

Sadr City, a slum on the edge of Baghdad teeming with some two million people, has nursed a great deal of anger towards the Americans. There, the "appointocracy" system sparked protests that ended in bloodshed. First, the military and RTI helped select representatives to work in the district council building. But soon afterward, 10,000 supporters of the popular young Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr kicked the appointed council out and installed a rival council. "The Americans ran this process; we didn't even know they were going to be selecting a council. So that's why the people of Sadr City rejected them and elected us," Naim al-Kabi, an engineer and chairman of the rival council, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Hussein D'eiyin al-Alawi, the head of the Sadr City branch of the Dawa Party, a Shiite political group, said they rejected the council the Americans helped create. “If they'd sent civilians to talk to me, I'd be more willing to listen,'' he said.

On October 16, 2003, U.S. soldiers and local Iraqi police brought in tanks and forced Kabi's council out of the building. Then they reinstalled their council. "The Sadr bureau people have been making people suffer. We are the people's legitimate representatives, and we've been bringing them aid and medicine. The Sadr people stopped that,'' said Siham Hittab, a Baghdad University literature professor who was one of the few women elected to the first council.

On November 9, 2003, Kabi returned to the building and demanded to be allowed in. He refused to submit to what he saw as a humiliating weapons search and got into a shoving match with a U.S. soldier, who shot him dead. That sparked more protest marches.

The American soldiers tried to blame Sadr City's electoral disaster on locals who were naïve to the democratic process. Major Paul Gass, a University of Houston ROTC teacher, told the Monitor their efforts were slow going. "The good Lord knows we've screwed this thing up from the get-go, but He also knows every one of us has our heart in the right place, and I think the Iraqis feel that, too,” he said. “We all want to help the Iraqis build something better than what they're coming out of; that's why it can be so upsetting when there's a setback.”

Top Down to Top Down

Imad Jonaby, an Iraqi-American working for RTI in Sadr City told the Monitor these councils were intended to make change an ingrained political system in Iraq. "The point of these councils is to move the country from a top-down system where everything was ordered and based on oppression to one where ordinary Iraqis take on the task of representing citizens, not controlling them,” he said. “It's a test for democracy. Can it work here?”

But RTI officials and the occupation authorities seemed to disregard the fact that using military in the face of local opposition in order to impose a council was not that different from Saddam Hussein's system.

Several council officials have abandoned their posts, fearing future problems. By February 2004, Siham had advanced through the RTI system from Sadr City council to a seat on the larger district council and then to the more important Baghdad city council. She was one of five Iraqi women who were flown to Washington in December 2003 to meet President Bush.

In February she decided to contest a seat on the Baghdad provincial council, the highest tier of the newly installed local government system. But she lost her nerve at the last moment. "These are two evils and we have to choose one of them,” she told the Guardian of London. “It is very difficult that the Iraqis have had to suffer all these years, and now they have to suffer more. People really feel upset because they don't see any change in their lives."

It is true that the new system has brought many ordinary Iraqis to power. For example Ali Haidary, a mechanical engineer who owns an air-conditioning repair company in the middle-class area of Al Adl, went to his local council to vote, not to run. But when someone nominated him for a spot on his neighborhood council and he won, he felt it was his responsibility to serve his people.

In the weeks following his election to the Al Adl neighborhood council, Haidary was elected to represent Al Adl on the Mansoor district council, which in turn voted him onto the Baghdad city council. In July 2003, he was elected vice chairman of the city council. In January 2004 he was appointed chairman of the political system that comprises 88 individual councils and more than 750 representatives.

For his role in the American-led political process, he now has to fear for his life: Many of his colleagues at the local and city level have been targets of protests, attacks, and suicide bombings.

On April 19, 2004, the occupation authorities decided to take the next step in the political process in Baghdad. Forty-nine local government representatives were invited to a heavily guarded municipal building to choose a mayor. But the final approval of his selection was awarded to Paul Bremer. Not surprisingly, Bremer picked an Iraqi expatriate: Alaa Mahmood al Tamimi, an Iraqi engineer and academic who had returned from exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Will Things Fall Apart?

Twelve months into its contract, RTI had 2,200 Iraqis and 220 foreign workers in their employ and had racked up $156 million in invoices to the U.S. government. In March 2004, the company was given a new one-year contract worth up to $154 million.

In explaining why the company had been awarded a new contract three months before other USAID contractors, a USAID official told CorpWatch: "If there are disruptions in services, that could disrupt the handover of sovereignty, and the new Iraqi government could have more trouble."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most Iraqis have not participated in the RTI process, which is causing some to speculate that this “democratic” process might cause future protests and disruptions. A National Public Radio reporter noted in February 2004 that in Baqubah, an hour's drive north of Baghdad, only 2 percent of the city's 10,000 residents decided to participate in an election designed by Omar Abud, a Syrian-Canadian who worked for RTI.

Herbert Docena, from the Filipino nonprofit Focus on the Global South, told CorpWatch called RTI's system deeply flawed. "For the councils I observed, I think they really didn't have the luxury of choosing,” he said. “They just cast the net wide and made do with anyone willing to cooperate with them. I guess that's a self-selecting process in itself, which weeds out the Sadr people or the militants. Everyone admitted-and no one denied-that the military and RTI had the final say on the selection. I guess they're still in the process of gathering data on people at this stage; I suspect they'd be handpicking people later, for the more crucial positions."

Docena said RTI employees have been going around the country presiding over local council meetings and organizing "Democracy Training Workshops" in which they exhort their fellow Iraqis to tell their neighbors to trust the occupation forces and to support their plans for them.

Docena recalled one workshop, in which a participant asked, “What's the use of the elections? Everyone knows that the U.S. will be appointing our leaders anyway." The RTI staff replied, "You must talk with people in your neighborhood and tell them this is not true. The new elections will be honest, democratic, and free." She then addressed the participants, saying, "You must tell your neighbors to be patient. We were patient for 35 years. What is another one-and-a-half years, even if the situation now is very bad?"

“The election/selection process had varying degrees of success throughout,” says Gibbons. “In established neighborhoods and areas where people felt secure, election turnout was relatively high and those selected were fairly representative of the electorate. In areas where citizens felt less secure, election participation was a challenge and the results were less representative.”

“Participation by Iraqis in the process in many parts of the country far exceeded the proportion of eligible U.S. voters who participate in municipal elections. And this has happened in a country where there never have been locally elected leaders, or nationally elected leaders. Iraqis should be congratulated on taking their role in selecting local leaders more serious than citizens of many other countries with centuries of democratic tradition,” he added.

Paul Bremer, the U.S. appointed director of Iraq's occupation was more candid, telling an interviewer: "I'm not opposed to it, but I want to do it in a way that takes care of our concerns... Elections that are held too early can be destructive. It's got to be done very carefully. ·In a situation like this, if you start holding elections, the people who are rejectionists tend to win."