Two days and counting before Iraqis get their first taste of democracy.
When Iraqis go to the polls much more than just the selection of national assembly members is at stake. Think of Sunday as the first balloting in an electoral chain reaction leading to something resembling a real democracy in the Arab Middle East.
If things go according to plan -- a big IF -- the assembly members will pick leaders to form a new government to replace the interim rule of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Most observers, however, see the assembly's main job as the drafting of a new constitution. A referendum in October would ratify the constitution and there would then be another national election in December to choose a permanent government.
First things first. Yes, Iraqis will go to the polls but it is anyone's guess as to how many of the more than 14 million registered voters will defy threats from insurgents and actually show up and vote.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says "…nobody is claiming this is going to be the perfect election. We all know there is violence. There are people trying to stop it. But this is a major milestone. This is going to be the first election that Iraqis have had to choose their own leaders. These leaders that will emerge, this assembly that will emerge from this election, are going to have that additional basis of legitimacy to call upon as they operate for Iraq, as they represent Iraq in the international arena, and as they fight the insurgencies and the violence and overcome the other problems inside Iraq."
What is motivating the Iraqi candidates who are putting their lives in danger for this political experiment grounded in Western values? Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank (funded by Congress) which has sponsored a number of workshops for Iraqis running for office, says "The answer in almost all cases is a feeling of commitment to making this come out right. They don't all like the United States, they don't like the war, they don't like the occupation, they don't like the lack of electricity, but they are truly committed to making this come out right for Iraq. And they're willing to take big risks for that."
When you examine Iraq's tribal, ethnic and religious groups in the context of the upcoming vote, says Iraq scholar Amatzia Baram, a Haifa University professor, you get a "mixed bag."
Because of the allegiance of his Shi'a followers, Baram expects Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to control the most important bloc in the new assembly. He predicts most Shi'a and Kurds will endorse the outcome, no matter what the actual turnout is, because their voters are the most likely to cast ballots. As for Sunni representation, Baram says it will be important for the new politically empowered groups (i.e. Kurds and Shi'a) to "reach out to Sunnis and include them in the government" even though they may not have much representation in the assembly itself.
As Iraqis -- candidates and voters alike -- cope with security threats on the eve of the election, President George W. Bush has kept repeating the message of his intentions for the next four years. During a news conference this week the President said, "…it is the long term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom. Otherwise, the Middle East will continue to be a cauldron of resentment and hate, a recruiting ground for those who have this vision of the world that is the exact opposite of ours."
Emphasizing the same theme in her first public comments as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice recalled the period of Greek and Turkish civil wars and a divided Germany after World War II saying, "…those were days when it must have seemed freedom's march was not assured" Rice tied the history lesson to the administration's current goals. "I know there are those who wonder whether democracy can take hold in the rocky soil of the West Bank or in Iraq or in Afghanistan. I believe that we, as Americans, know how hard the path to democracy is, have to believe that it can."
Rice summed it up: "That's our charge. That's our calling."
If the President and his new Secretary of State are right, in Iraqi history books written a hundred years from now, 2005 could turn out to be their "1776." On the other hand, if the insurgents, ex-Baathists and others who oppose the Bush administration's oft-stated efforts to spread freedom and liberty succeed, 2005 could become the year Iraq began civil war.
By Charles M. Wolfson