BAGHDAD, Iraq—Army Col. Ghassan Nouri put on civilian clothes Tuesday and did something that, just two weeks ago, would have landed him in jail.
The 40-year-old mustachioed Iraqi spent the morning shopping for a new political movement. Then, before lunch, he walked into the 5-day-old headquarters of the long-banned Iraqi Communist Party and offered to enlist.
"I came to find out how I can help," Nouri said. "Iraqi communists have nothing to be ashamed of. They are nationalists who love their country. All they ever did was struggle against the regime."
With breathtaking speed, Iraqis are moving to make good on President Bush's promise of democracy. Less than two weeks after Saddam Hussein's ouster from power, political parties are popping up all over the capital. Whether this pluralism will produce democracy or chaos isn't clear.
Already there are three known Islamic parties, five Kurdish parties, the Communist Party, three movements headed by generals who have not returned from exile and the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress, whose spokesman Zaad Sethna estimates that 40 parties have set up shop across the sprawling capital.
"There are parties springing up that we never heard of," Sethna said, calling it "a very good thing, a very good sign. It confirms what we've said all along: Beneath the surface, the Iraqis are ready to embrace democracy and civil society."
U.S. troops may still be fighting pockets of resistance from Saddam loyalists while struggling to establish an interim government and restore basic services. But Iraqis are losing no time filling the void left by Saddam's Baath Party, which outlawed opposition.
The new parties are squatting in government buildings and improvising an amateur form of grassroots politics.
In one corner of the city, the Islamic Dawa Party has taken over the former Culture Ministry's Sinbad Youth Club, where three men are taking the names of interested Iraqis and promising that a political platform will be published soon. They have swept out the club's trashed children's books and smashed plate glass windows and hung a banner with their credo: "The will of Allah rules."
Just up the block, Iraqi National Congress branch manager Jassem Hamid hears people's complaints—about lack of security, electricity and water—outside a charred Iraqi Passport Office, and replies that they're still waiting to hear how the U.S. government will restore basic services.
In consolation, he hands out INC flags and pictures of the party leader, Ahmed Chalabi, with a word of advice: "Don't just hang the picture up, like he's Saddam Hussein. I want you to know about him, he wants a free Iraq."
Most Baghdadis have never heard of Chalabi, who left Iraq in 1958 and lived for years in London before the Pentagon engineered his return.
A political novice, Hamid—who first heard Chalabi's name in 1992—last worked odd jobs in Damascus, Syria. His sole qualification for the branch manager's job: His cousin is a Chalabi bodyguard.
Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party has better name recognition, especially among Baghdad's 1 million or more Sunni Muslim Kurds who know of the KDP's long-simmering feud with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talibani.
Both parties have set up headquarters along Haifa Street, on either side of the Iraqi National Congress office, to press their case for a federalist Iraqi nation.
Baghdad architect Khasro Jaaf credits the proliferation of parties to Iraq's newly found freedom. But he wants a future Iraq to separate religion from state and to have five or six parties in the next three months.
"There's a hair's breath of a difference between democracy and the jungle," he said.
On Tuesday morning, Nouri did a bit of consolidation on his own.
As an infantry instructor at Iraq's General Staff College, he was a mandatory member of the Baath Party and decided it was time to correct that. He stopped in at the Free Officers and Civilians Movement, set up by an exiled former military chief-of-staff, and was unimpressed.
The party has printed a platform opposing U.N. sanctions, advocating rebuilding Iraq and pledging religious equality. It even offered ID cards for members with their photo, name, age and blood type.
But the leader, Gen. Najib Salihi, was still in Kuwait. "He was not serious," Nouri concluded.
So he drove to Communist Party headquarters, set up in a former government guest house for Soviet advisers. Nouri pushed past the crowds beneath a red flag and banner declaring "A Free Country and a Happy People" to listen and watch for a while.
Central Committee member Adel Khalid said the party's first priority would be to re-establish security and civil society. It also wanted to make certain that the United Nations—not the United States—guided humanitarian efforts and any interim government.
Fellow party members called him "Comrade Adel" as he explained that the communists had had an underground political movement in Iraq—and suffered the worst.
In a particularly brutal crackdown in 1963, he said as he set a coveted satellite telephone on a table, Iraq executed an estimated 10,000 Iraqi communists, including the last public general secretary, Salam Adel.
Now, he said, "the coming few months will tell who's the strongest and who's not. We just came out of the war. Democracy is establishing itself. If the people will be allowed to practice that democracy, you will see a lot of changes."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.