Job Beckons Engineer to Baghdad
By Sewell Chan
BAGHDAD, April 18 -- One by one, the neatly dressed men shuffled to the center of the wood-paneled room, sat down and explained to the audience why they would like to be mayor of this city. Outside, a dozen U.S. Army Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles kept a protective watch.
If the scene was unusual in the annals of big-city government, so was the outcome: The Baghdad City Council on Sunday overwhelmingly endorsed Alaa Mahmood Tamimi, a 52-year-old structural engineer, to become mayor of Baghdad, overseeing a $75 million budget and 9,000 municipal employees.
More unusual still, the winning applicant has been living in another country for most of the past eight years. A native of the Iraqi city of Fallujah who holds a doctorate from the University of Paris, Tamimi is a senior planning adviser for the local government in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. He announced his intent to return to live in Baghdad permanently.
The choice must first be approved by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq.
"I hope Baghdad will regain its reputation as the mother of the world," Tamimi said in a buoyant speech after the results of the secret balloting were announced.
The voting was the climax of a months-long process to restructure the governance of the Iraqi capital, which has 5 million residents.
One year after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the government of former president Saddam Hussein, the American-led occupation authority has promoted the new Baghdad city government as a symbol of Iraq's democratic potential. U.S. officials view the provincial and city councils as a way of devolving power from the central government.
The 37 members of the Baghdad City Council took office last July as an advisory body to Bremer. The previous mayor fled before U.S. troops took the city last year. Most of the city's affairs had been run by the occupation authority.
When Hussein was in power, the mayor of Baghdad was usually a relative or close ally of the president. Now that has changed. The council decided that Baghdad needed a seasoned technocrat who would focus on cleaning up tons of trash, overhauling the sewage system and improving public parks.
Unlike the mayor of an American city, Baghdad's mayor is more like a chief of public works, with authority over water and sewer services, trash collection, road maintenance and public buildings. The council published the equivalent of a help-wanted ad to find a new one.
"Invitation for Candidacies to the Post of Mayor of Baghdad," read the announcements published in several of the capital's leading newspapers last month. Applicants had to be at least 40 years old and have at least 10 years of experience in engineering, urban planning or city management, along with "commitment to the principles of democracy."
A selection committee made up of 10 council members and three deputy mayors screened more than 90 applications and interviewed 28 applicants before narrowing them down to eight finalists. One dropped out to take a job at the Education Ministry.
The seven who remained gave brief statements Sunday in the sixth-floor council chambers of Baghdad's municipality building before taking questions.
"We must attract investment to the city," said Omar Farooq Damaluji, 48, the chairman of the civil engineering department at Baghdad University. "I believe we are a rich city, but I know we are now poor. I know that in a short time we can get foreign investment in here."
Faris Abdul Kareem Kubba, a 50-year-old water resources engineer, offered a blunt analysis of Baghdad's infrastructure. "It has deteriorated for more than 35 years and it continues to deteriorate," he told the council members. "You look at Baghdad from above, and you see a city in ruins."
After two hours of presentations, the council members adjourned and discussed the candidates during a closed-door luncheon. Then they returned to the chamber to vote on three recommendations to present to Bremer for the final selection.
Andrew L. Morrison, an American who oversees the Baghdad provincial and city governments for the occupation authority, said it was likely that Bremer would pick the council's top choice as mayor, provided he passes security checks.
In the end, Tamimi swept the endorsement with more than 75 percent of the vote. Damaluji and Kubba were the runners-up. "I will be frank and firm in taking any decision concerning Baghdad's interests," Tamimi vowed. "I will find solutions for the enormous problems we face."
Then he prepared to return to Abu Dhabi.
Special correspondent Hoda Ahmed Lazim contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company