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Paying the Price

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American-style Grassroots Politics

photo: Tom Bullock

When the metal gate is shoved open at the fire station in this Baghdad suburb, the street children clap their approval.

Something important is going on here: it's the best show in town.

American soldiers are already inside. More than a dozen determined neighborhood men have also arrived, sweeping through the young curbside audience. This is grassroots politics, a neighborhood election, organized and run by young American soldiers. It is the first time these Iraqis have taken part in any governing role. Guiding them through the process is Lt. Tom Griffith.

"It ranges from teacher, doctors and those out of work," says Griffith, "it's a cross section."

Iraqis, from the run-down neighborhood now known as Sadr City, are frustrated by the slow procedures that Griffith insists on. Why can't we just talk about our problems? asks one man. What are we doing here?

Another grumbles, but no one walks out and Lt. Griffins gets them back on track.

"Right now," says Griffins, "we need to get back to agenda. We need to select a chairman, a vice-chairman and get to the agenda."

American soldiers have organized elections all over Iraq-part of the nation building promised in the aftermath of the war. The American soldier offers a civics lesson: the elections, he tells them, gives them a powerful responsibility, not power.

Griffins continues, "You are the voice of your community, you have trouble with electricity, with sewers, getting paid, you need to speak, so we can bring them up higher-so the issues can get addressed."

Next: Pockets of Tolerance, Evaporating Goodwill

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