The recent suicide bombing in the southern Iraqi city of Al Hilla was, sadly, nothing new. Watching the news here with Iraqi friends, I thought I knew what would happen next, since it had happened often enough before I left Iraq eight months ago, when the United States handed over sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government. Then, the Iraqis standing around the bank of televisions in our offices would have turned to me, the representative American, asking why we could not get security under control.
This time, however, the same Iraqi friends ignored me and instead participated in a protest: the first Iraqi-organized mass public protest, some 2,000 strong, in the 23 months since the fall of Saddam's regime. "The Americans" were no longer an address for frustration or salvation. Welcome to postelection Iraq.
And there are many more barometers of a new Iraqi mood, even as tens of thousands of foreign troops remain in the country and the brutal violence continues.
Now American troops are increasingly behind the scenes, there to help if things get dicey. For most Iraqis, the checkpoint experience has become one of interface with their fellow citizens in uniform -- an enormous psychological and symbolic change. A senior Defense Department official here discussed taking this process to the next step by employing Iraqi-only military patrols in the major cities.
Last year, Iraq's prime minister, deputy prime minister, and president were guarded by U.S. Special Forces. When these politicians appeared on local television, a ring of plainclothes Americans was often in the camera shot. At that time, Prime Minister Allawi visited the scenes of suicide bombings to project a strong "large and in charge" image. This effort was hampered by visuals of the tight circle of Americans who were keeping him alive. Now Iraqis have been trained to do the job -- another important change.
As for the Iraqi security services, when I passed a recruiting facility in Baghdad, the line went on as far as the eye could see. It looked like a suicide bombing waiting to happen. But Iraqis have not been deterred. As the CENTCOM commander, General Abizaid, put it, "Each time an Iraqi soldier is killed, another steps up to take his place. And since the handover of sovereignty, more Iraqis have died in the line of duty in Iraq than Americans."
When I repeated this story to a Western reporter, he cynically responded: "Well that just shows you how desperate they are for jobs." Perhaps. But then how does one explain more than 8 million Iraqis who risked their lives, not for a job, but to vote?
As for Iraqi security performance, I asked U.S. troops in Baghdad for feedback. Some was glowing, some restrained, but none disparaging. At a minimum, there was real respect on the part our troops for Iraqis risking their lives for their own country. And while everyone agrees that Iraqi forces still have a way to go, their elite teams -- like SWAT, emergency response, and counterinsurgency -- are performing exceptionally well. They have been fully participating and are often taking the lead in complex and dangerous operations.
The Arab satellite channels themselves are going through a transformation. While Iraqis claim that Al Jazeera continues to be "the mouthpiece of the insurgency," its chief competitor, Al Arabiyah, has gotten serious about reporting news beyond the violence, notwithstanding some sensationalism from time to time.
On Election Day, Al Arabiyah had correspondents go live at polling places in six cities, north to south. When fence-sitting Iraqis tuned in that morning to decide whether to take the risk to vote, Al Arabiyah reported voter momentum rather than terrorist attacks. Momentum begets momentum.
Interestingly, Al Jazeera does not hold the dominant position in Iraq that it maintains in other Arab markets. It did launch about eight years ahead of Al Arabiyah, which emerged just before the Iraq war. But because Saddam had outlawed satellite dishes, both channels arrived at the same time in the homes of most Iraqis.
Such newfound political rights are not as easily reversible as Western skeptics claim. A political constituency is being created, which was exactly the intent of the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition when they made this constitutional stipulation. Once women get comfortable with political power, it's not easy for Islamists to take it away without risk of revolt.
The example being set by Iraqis on women's rights goes beyond politics to myriad new women's rights organizations and to women's visibility in the press corps. Indeed, there is nothing more revolutionary than an Islamist politician being grilled by an abayah-clad female Iraqi reporter under the bright lights of pan-Arab television cameras broadcasting to the entire region.
Even Iraqis' lack of interest in the "Zionist entity" is telling. This is not to say that Iraqis are supportive of Israel or unsympathetic to the Palestinians. It's just that they don't share the obsession with Israel that consumes some others in the region. The Iraqi political parties that ran on a Nasserite pan-Arab agenda performed dismally.
At Baghdad International Airport, the Iraqi employee of Royal Jordanian Airlines asked me if my final destination from Baghdad was Amman. "No," I replied, "it's Tel Aviv." He didn't flinch, let alone launch into an anti-Israel tirade or deny me service. His only concern was how to tag my luggage so it could go all the way through. I told a Sunni Iraqi minister at the airport the same thing. He didn't miss a beat, either. Free Iraqis seem to be able to reconcile being agnostic about Israel with being sympathetic to the Palestinians. And, besides, Iraqis are preoccupied with jobs, electricity, and security, none of which they connect to the old pan-Arab scapegoat. Their outlet now is their own political process.
Now, in the postelection euphoria, one begins to hear the word "first" again. Iraqis recognize the significance of the election not only for themselves, but for the region, which has renewed their sense of pride. As the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq put it when announcing the official results of the election: "Today Iraq is taking a new step toward... democracy." It was the first "true democratic experience" for Arab countries "and a model for the people of the area... Today is the birth of a free Iraq... based on civilized democratic values."
On the day that Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated, an Iraqi leader predicted to me that the response from the Lebanese people would be dramatically different because of the example set by the Iraqi election.
Even in Iraq's Sunni-majority areas, many people already resent the Association of Islamic Scholars for urging a boycott of the election, and so forcing them off the democratic train just as it was leaving the station. There is little doubt that Sunnis will participate at much higher rates in the two elections scheduled for later this year.
Even after Saddam's capture, many Iraqis seemed unable to fully believe that their country would not revert to tyranny, the only political reality most had ever known. Now, since the elections, Iraqis seem for the first time to be taking ownership of their country. They are proud, and determined not to let it go.
Dan Senor was chief spokesman and senior adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad from April 2003 through June 2004. He recently returned to Iraq for the first time since the handover of sovereignty.
By Dan Senor