updated 1/21/2004 5:55:32 PM ET 2004-01-21T22:55:32

Tribal sheiks, clerics, men in suits and women wearing Islamic scarves came to this mainly Shiite city Wednesday to hear an American professor expound on democracy. Not everyone thought the two-hour exercise was worthwhile.

But the fact that such a diverse group met at all showcases the spirit of today’s Iraq as it struggles to shift from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to democracy.

“There is a little Saddam Hussein inside every one of us,” said Farqat al-Husseini al-Qizwini, a burly Shiite cleric with close ties to the U.S.-led coalition. “We must get rid of that little dictator living in our hearts.”

The discussion, which drew more than 1,000 participants, took place at a mosque built two years ago and named for the former dictator. It was taken over by al-Qizwini last year and turned into a center for religious and humanitarian studies.

Democracy 101, sponsored by the coalition
Wednesday’s gathering was one of many sponsored by the U.S.-led coalition around Iraq to encourage understanding of democratic values. The discussions coincide with a growing controversy on the best way for the U.S.-led coalition to hand power to Iraqis by July 1.

A Nov. 15 agreement between the coalition and Iraq’s Governing Council provides for a legislature selected from regional caucuses to appoint a sovereign government by July 1. But a senior cleric widely respected among Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority wants the legislature to be elected in a direct vote. Tens of thousands have demonstrated in support of his demand.

“It takes a long time to organize an election,” said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political science professor who was keynote speaker in Hillah. For a proper election, he said, thousands of electoral officials and election monitors would need to be trained.

“Many young democracies failed because they held an election too soon and before the country was ready for an election, administratively and politically,” he said. “Iraq will not be ready for an election before the beginning of next year. But I don’t think it’s a good idea for Iraqis to wait another six months to regain their sovereignty.”

Election-year factor
Such views are in line with arguments put forth by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to explain their opposition to an early vote and the importance of meeting the July 1 deadline for the transfer of power. However, they speak privately of a U.S. election year dictating, at least in part, Washington’s policies in Iraq.

Faced with an American death toll of over 500 U.S. forces, the Bush administration wants to see U.S. soldiers hand over responsibility for security to Iraqis and step into a supporting, and less dangerous, role.

“Frankly, I heard nothing new today,” said Ali al-Fatlawi, 35, a tribal sheik from the holy Shiite city of Karbala. “It’s like a broken record. What I want to know is, when will the Americans leave Iraq and allow us to run our own affairs?”

Mohanad Sajian, a 23-year-old Shiite seminary student, was also skeptical.

“The American professor spoke about abstract democratic values and practices, but did not tell us about how democracy will work here in Iraq,” Sajian said.

Participants came to Hillah from a mainly Shiite swath of land in central and southern Iraq that has traditionally felt marginalized by governments in Baghdad. The area’s history under Saddam — hundreds of thousands of Shiites from the area were killed, jailed or forced to leave Iraq after a failed 1991 revolt — is behind residents’ relatively high degree of tolerance toward the U.S.-led occupation.

Shiites have expressed a readiness to embrace democratic values. However, some recognize the challenges ahead.

“The road to democracy is long and hard and we still have a long way to go,” said Dr. Maha Hamid al-Saqban, a pediatrician who was the only woman at the meeting who did not wear a head scarf.

“I have an understanding with the clerics,” she explained. “I saved the life of many children and helped many families. They appreciate that.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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