MOSUL, Iraq - A convention of religious, ethnic and tribal leaders chose a former Iraqi army general as Mosul's mayor yesterday, making it the country's first major city with an elected government.
About 150 delegates cast ballots to select an interim council of 24 men, who then went behind closed doors and picked Ghanim al-Basso, 58, a former Iraqi army major general and longtime member of the Baath Party, as interim mayor.
Opposition leaders, who boycotted the vote, called it undemocratic and said it gave power to several supporters of President Saddam Hussein's ousted regime. But the U.S. military official who oversaw the election process said he was satisfied that Al-Basso, whose brother was executed by the Hussein regime a decade ago, was sufficiently independent to serve as mayor.
Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of northwest Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said the indirect election was a successful first step in building democracy. "By being here today, you are participating in the birth of the democratic process in Iraq," Petraeus told convention delegates before yesterday's vote, calling it a "historic day."
To maintain ethnic balance, a Kurd was selected to the deputy mayor's post, and the two men chosen as assistant mayors are a Christian Assyrian and an ethnic Turk.
The new government faces several serious problems, including demands for better security, jobs and fuel for vehicles and gas stoves. The gasoline shortage is so severe in Mosul that drivers wait in line for two days to fill their tanks.
The new mayor and council will have full power to govern Mosul, which officially is Iraq's third-largest city but claims to be second-largest, and the surrounding Nineveh province, Petraeus said.
The new government will be backed by Iraqi police, who are now back on patrol, "and where necessary, [U.S.] soldiers," Petraeus added.
Isam Mahmood, a former lieutenant general tortured and jailed for plotting a coup against Hussein, had planned to be a delegate to the convention but said he decided to stay home because too many Hussein loyalists were involved.
"In Mosul, there were many political prisoners, but none were elected to the council," Mahmood said. "But those who shook Saddam's hand to the last minute were elected. This is the shame of this council today."
Like several other community elders who boycotted yesterday's vote, Mahmood said he would not actively oppose the mayor and council's work as long as they soon make way for direct elections that are free and fair.
"If this election is for a temporary government, that will be easy," he said. "But if it is not, it is a new disaster for Iraq."
Petraeus assured convention delegates meeting yesterday at the Mosul social club that the interim council and mayor will be replaced by city residents in a direct vote but did not say when. Officers on the general's staff said there is a lot of work to be done first, such as educating Iraqis on the basics of democracy and voting in elections with more than one candidate on the ballot.
The relatively trouble-free selection of a new government was remarkable in a city with a complex ethnic and political mix, which erupted into two days of rioting that left at least 12 Iraqi civilians dead just three weeks ago.
Al-Basso led the Iraqi army's 3rd Corps until 1993 when, he said, Hussein forced him to retire after the regime executed his brother, Salim Al-Basso, who headed the air force, and a cousin. They were accused of plotting against the regime, he said.
The new mayor acknowledged being a member of the ruling Baath Party and said he held "many positions in the military leadership, especially in logistics and political duties," adding he was a frequent lecturer in politics and economics at Iraq's national defense college.
Al-Basso's critics say he has remained an enthusiastic Baath Party member who was fired not because of his beliefs, but because of Hussein's practice of attacking relatives of anyone he saw as an enemy.
"He was not in the opposition, and he did not do anything against Saddam," said Mahmood, who praised al-Basso as a military leader but questioned his legitimacy as mayor of a major city in post-Hussein Iraq.
Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.