- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A majority of Americans say the Iraq war is a mistake, even as Iraqis say they are more determined than ever to use the freedom we have given them to go to the polls and vote in January.

This is the paradox that looms over America’s heroic struggle there as the terrorists escalate their killing spree in the belief that they can halt Iraq’s movement toward democratic self-government and justice after decades of tyranny, terror and death.

In the ebb and flow of war against a hit-and-run insurgency that seems beyond our power to defeat, the daily toll of death and destruction in Iraq has taken its political toll here at home, too. This week, a Washington Post poll of 1,004 randomly selected adults finds that a 70 percent majority now say that the conflict there has come at an “unacceptable” cost in American casualties. When asked if it was worth it, 56 percent say it was “not worth fighting,” up 8 points since last summer.

This is what made the headlines and the nightly news shows this week.

But the Post poll revealed other things about how Americans view this war that got buried in the reporting or were not reported at all.

For example, a strong 58 percent majority say that American soldiers, even if U.S. casualties mount, should stay in Iraq until “civil order is restored.” By a smaller margin, 48 percent to 44 percent, they think that the U.S. effort to plant the seeds of democracy there is making “significant progress.”

The contradictions do not end here. While 58 percent said Iraq was not ready for elections, 60 percent still believe the elections should go forward as planned at the end of January.

This is the critical nexus at which Americans and Iraqis are joined at the hip. No matter what the insurgents may do, no matter how many Iraqis they may kill, the elections must not be delayed. The terrorists will see that there is a greater force than death or the fear of death. It is the yearning to live in freedom. We see it being born anew in Ukraine. We are seeing it now in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the daily news reports give us a deeply distorted picture of the terrorist attacks in Iraq. They focus on the car bombings, but not on what the Iraqis people are saying in the midst of all this. What they have to say is often inspiring, optimistic and unyielding. They know terrorists can kill them but they are not willing to give in to them.

“I swear to God, even if they burn all the elections centers, we will still go and vote,” said Ali Waili, 29, a cab driver in Karbala, according to one report in the wake of Sunday’s car bombing in a crowded plaza in central Najaf. “We have been mistreated for a long time, we have been tortured for a long time.”

Among the most significant voices in Iraq in the midst of the fiery deaths are the clerics who are in the forefront of moving ahead with the elections, no matter what the costs.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s foremost religious leader, and the leader of the United Iraqi Alliance that is widely seen as the front-runner in the campaign, has condemned the violence and tells Iraqis that voting is a duty. Another top religious leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed Hakim, has condemned the bombings as an attempt to “incite sectarian sedition.”

Even Shi’ite figures in Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdi militia, who led some of the uprisings against U.S. occupation, vow that the violence will not stop Iraq’s march toward democracy and self-rule. “These attacks will result in nothing but insistence on proceeding toward the Iraq of the future,” said a top Sadr aide.

The upcoming elections, which are being very heavily promoted in the newspapers and on the airwaves in Iraq, will elect a national assembly to write a constitution that will establish a democratic system of government. While major groups among Iraq’s Sunni minority have called for a boycott of the elections, the likelihood is that Iraqi voter turnout is going to be huge throughout most of the country.

The question, then, is what impact will the elections have here as well in Iraq?

For the Iraqis, it will not only be a defining moment in their history, it will strike an immense blow again the terrorists’ plans to impose their will on the country through fear and intimidation.

For the United States, it will be a vindication of President Bush’s pre-emptive war against terrorist breeding grounds in the Middle East. The election will be the ultimate poll, showing that Iraqis want freedom and democracy and that the war we led to liberate them was definitely not a mistake.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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