NAJAF, Iraq -- Shortly after Americans celebrated the anniversary of its independence, the military governor of Najaf welcomed a new government council that will help establish democracy in one of the world's holiest Shiite Muslim cities.
Before welcoming the 29 representatives that were selected by local political parties July 7, Lt. Col. Christopher C. Conlin, commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines and military governor of the Najaf province, held a joint press conference with the Haider Mahdi, who was appointed interim mayor of Najaf.
Conlin told reporters is that after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, the city of Najaf is peaceful. In the last few months the Marines have a good working relationship with the community.
"The big story is that Najaf is a safe and secure environment," Conlin said. "And, they [the Iraqi people] did it on their own."
Conlin explained that although his Marines patrol the area and work with local authorities to help keep order, it is the high morals of the community that keep problems from escalating.
"We experience about the same level of crime you would expect from a city of 900,000," Conlin said. "We do not have the same problems with looting as they do in other areas."
Talking through an interpreter, the interim mayor explained that although the Marines are helping, it would be up to the people of Najaf to make things work.
"We will work together for good results," Mahdi said. "The people of Najaf, Iraq want their freedom."
After the press conference, reporters witnessed history as the newly formed governing council met together for the first time.
The interim governing council, which represents the towns and professional organizations here, were chosen in town hall meetings, according to Army Major David Toth, an elections expert assigned to coordinate efforts between the First Marine Expeditionary Force and An Najaf officials.
As of the makeup of the council, the only requirement that Conlin had was the participation of at least one woman.
"That was my idea," said Conlin. "She represents the woman's party here."
One by one, each member introduced themselves to each other and to Colin. As each one rose to speak, Colin replied by used the traditional Arab sign of respect, placing his hand over his heart when they greeted each other. Before he left, he imparted important instructions.
"Najaf is taking its first steps to destiny," Colin said to council members. "You are the voice of the people."
He went on to remind them that in democracy a government works for the people and not for its own self-interest.
"Never forget who you represent, said Conlin. "You must reflect their views, not yours. Make sure you remember what they want."
After spending the first day getting acquainted the governing council got down to work. One of the first things they accomplished was deciding whether the interim mayor would get their support.
After debating among themselves, Mahdi received a unanimous vote of confidence from the council, thereby creating three distinct interim branches of government for Najaf.
"This is a very good thing," said Army Maj. David A. Toth, the governing council liaison from the government support team. "The old election committee did not have any confidence in the old mayor. This gives them a legitimate executive."