The Iraqi Government's New Target: Do-Gooders

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Safin Hamed / AFP / Getty

Iraqi Red Cresent workers distribute humanitarian aid to the poor in the northern city of Arbil.

When Iraq's provincial elections in January ran smoothly, observers touted the outcome as a positive step toward a freer society. But elections alone don't make a democracy. A draft law to regulate nongovernmental organizations was approved this week by the Cabinet, unsettling elements of the nascent local NGO community, who say that parts of the law raise concerns about how free and fair the new Iraq will be.

Their main apprehension centers on a mandatory registration process. Both foreign and local NGOs must register with a government directorate. Registration in and of itself is not a problem, activists say, but the proposed legislation — which will now go before the Parliament and must be signed into law by the President — is vague about the conditions under which the government can refuse to register NGOs. The draft also envisions a government that can pry more directly into the internal management of NGOs. Baghdad will also have discretionary power to either grant additional privileges or remove an organization's benefits and rights, a provision that NGOs fear could handicap critics and enshrine preferential treatment for those toeing a certain line. (See pictures of NGOs fighting blindness around the world.)

"We have seen in previous years how some government grants have been given to NGOs with political ties to parties in government," says Hashem Assaf, spokesman for the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, an umbrella group that represents 52 international and national bodies, including Oxfam and Mercy Corps, as well as more than 200 local affiliates. "We, as NGOs, are trying to remain independent." (See TIME's 2005 Persons of the Year: The Good Samaritans.)

Iraq's civic society has blossomed since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who sought to rigidly repress it. There are some 6,250 registered organizations operating in the country today, as well as a Ministry of State for Civil Society Affairs and civil society committees in provincial governments. But there are still limitations. NGOs cannot merge with one another or form networks without the permission of the government. Furthermore, the participation of non-Iraqis, even in international NGOs, will be limited to 25% of an organization.

More worrisome for some groups, the current draft law imposes provisions legalizing monitoring of the finances and accounts of NGOs, as well as their activities. The government must be notified of, and approve donations to civic organizations, giving it leverage over groups that often depend on contributions to survive. Hussain al-Safi, director general of the NGO Directorate, sidestepped a question about why the government should have its fingers on an NGO's purse strings, saying he hadn't read the 12-page draft law in detail. "I've been waiting for the opportunity to have a spare minute to read it," he says, thumbing through a copy on his desk.

To be fair, Safi has only been in his post for a month and acknowledges that there were "a lot of things out of order" regarding his office's handling of NGOs, including the physical and bureaucratic challenges associated with registering an organization. There is, for example, one telephone number on his directorate's website (and it's out of service). Up until a few weeks ago, there was no internet connection in his offices even though the directorate's website encourages e-mail inquiries.

Safi says he wants to foster greater openness with NGOs and intends to solicit their opinions regarding the draft law. Still, he doesn't think government surveillance of their activities is an infringement on their freedom. "The surveillance authorities follow and watch NGOs because there were a lot of legal breaches by NGOs that resulted in bad things," he says, referring to allegations that some groups supported terrorism or functioned as brothels. "This forced the government to monitor and maintain surveillance of NGOs given the thorny security situation."

Assaf, the NGO representative, acknowledges that there are "corrupt elements" and for-profit associations masquerading as civic groups but says that clamping down on the majority because of a minority is unfair. The security situation is a convenient excuse for ulterior motives. "We speak of a new democratic Iraq that has put the ways of the old regime behind it, but at the same time there are things that make you think that the government wants to try and control NGOs," he says.

Khaled al-Asadi, a member of parliament's committee on civil society organizations, says that although Saddam's dictatorial regime was toppled, some of its habits linger. "Certain groups within government want to put their fingerprints all over the work of NGOs and the law governing them," he says. "They still think in terms of control and surveillance. The Iraqi people were raised on this mind-set. It's not easily or quickly erased."

Still, that's exactly what Assaf says the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq hopes to do. It plans to continue advocating against articles in the law that he says will hamper its work. "We are supposed to be building a new Iraq," he says. "We don't want it to just be a slogan."

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