Columnists > Voices
Charles Dharapak/AP

Blatant democracy

Recent progress in Baghdad's chamber is more than a miracle

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

I owe a lot to Tanya Gilly. Back when a reporter couldn't just take his or her U.S. passport and show up in Iraq, Tanya helped me to gain clearance from Syrian security, which hosted the only open border for Americans to cross the Tigris River into Iraq apart from the watchful eyes of Saddam's Republican Guard.

And still today, Tanya could be in her I Street office off Farragut Square like other Washington lobbyists, doing public relations for Iraq's opposition parties, heading to Starbucks on the corner to talk with associates about how bad the beach traffic out of D.C. will be on a Friday afternoon, or taking a long lunch over kebabs and cursing the inferiority of any lamb from the United States. (There is nothing like lamb raised in Iraq.)

Instead, Tanya chose what the writer of Hebrews might call a more excellent way. In 2005 she left her job and the United States-where she had lived since she was 7 years old when assassination attempts on her father's life forced her family to flee Iraq-and returned to her native Kirkuk to run for office.

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She ran as a Kurdish candidate on a nonsectarian slate and won a seat in parliament in the December 2005 elections. Now, she told me in an email, "I am in Baghdad most of the time and there are not enough hours in the day to do everything I need to get done."

Her parliamentary work keeps her inside the U.S.-protected Green Zone, both for security reasons and because she has a lot to do. Tanya works with several women's groups promoting equal rights in Iraq, and she is a member of the foreign relations committee. She is an outspoken critic of insurgent violence and has joined public marches to protest terrorist groups. This month marks International Women's Day (March 8), and she is working to organize events related to the role of women in Iraqi society, but "we have not made it public yet, for security reasons."

When Tanya is able to travel north to Kirkuk, she visits displaced camps and clubs for retired soldiers. She is helping to launch a free medical clinic and new schools for the many Iraqis (mostly Kurds) forced out of Kirkuk under Saddam and now returning to the city. And everywhere she goes, she is watching her back. Last year eight members of parliament were killed in a single bomb blast.

All in all, this sounds remarkably like a real job. Not simply a title and a suit serving as covers for corruption, cronyism, and ineptitude-the caricatures of Iraqi leaders captured by those who berate Iraq's "failed experiment" in democracy.

As I have corresponded with Tanya from time to time since her return to Iraq, she exudes a passion about issues and her constituents equal to the most committed U.S. lawmaker, coupled with an urgency because the times are desperate.

She acknowledges that there is corruption and "more than a long way to go," but lawmakers in Iraq get scant press despite real accomplishments in 2008.

In January they passed legislation reinstating Baath Party members, allowing some to return to government service and some to receive pensions.

Last month parliament passed three important measures that at one point had threatened to dissolve the legislative body: a 2008 budget; a law defining the scope of provincial powers (a key step toward federalism); and amnesty for thousands of jailed Iraqis (mostly Sunni Arabs, an important step toward Sunni-Shiite reconciliation). All represent contentious issues. That they came to a vote was the work of all major factions-Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. When time came to vote on the measures as one package, it passed unanimously. This from a legislative body so fractured last August that it risked extinction when taking a much criticized, month-long recess. More is needed, but anyone who studied the recent U.S. House and Senate debate of the defense appropriations bill knows that the Iraqi parliament's feat cannot be described simply as a miracle. It's a blatant exercise in democracy.

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