- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

Assassinations, executions, car bombings, police station raids and other terrorist acts against U.S. military forces and Iraqi civilians will continue escalating as Iraq’s elections near. That much is obvious.

But beyond the destruction insurgent attacks will no doubt sporadically inflict on some Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere, what else can al Qaeda terrorists hope to accomplish between now and the Jan. 30 elections? The emerging answer appears to be: not much.

The Iraqi insurgents, led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, certainly have zero chance of toppling Baghdad’s provisional government as long as the U.S.-led forces remain. And there should be no doubt we will stay for the foreseeable future — at least until the Iraqis are able to take charge of their own security.

At the same time, the terrorists have no chance of stopping or delaying the elections, which are heavily supported by the Shi’ite Muslim majority (60 percent of Iraq’s population). Shi’ite clerical leaders have been in the forefront of keeping the elections on track to end the decades of domination by the Sunni minority, from whom Saddam Hussein’s regime drew most of its support. Shi’ite support for Iraq’s first democratic election in 80 years virtually guarantees a huge turnout. Iraqi officials note many Sunnis, who also had no love for Saddam’s bloodthirsty rule, will also vote in relatively large numbers.

So Zarqawi, whom Osama bin Laden has anointed as the “emir,” or prince, of al Qaeda in Iraq, can only hope to kill and terrorize enough Iraqi voters to curb and in some places even prevent turnout in key cities in the Sunni triangle in a desperate bid to discredit the vote and the provisional legislature it elects.

But no one expects perfection of next month’s elections, especially in a wartime environment. The lead story emerging from Jan. 30 will be about brave Iraqis risking their lives to exercise their right to choose their own government.

In a strange paradox, bin Laden and Zarqawi could prove to be the strongest pro-democracy weapons the Shi’ite majority has. After all, Zarqawi has been directing the attacks on Shi’ite Muslims. The terrorist acts have only intensified Shi’ite religious resolve to vote at all costs to boost their representation in the new assembly, which will write a new democratic constitution.

Even so, the stepped-up killing is no doubt having the intended effect among some Iraqis. Election officials and candidates are being murdered. Policemen have had their throats slit and their stations destroyed, cutting the number of Iraqis who show up for duty. And bin Laden, who has urged a boycott of the elections, has declared any who vote will be deemed infidels.

Suicide bombers have been sent into crowded public places to blow up men, women and children, sending the chilling message this will happen to any who dare to show up at voting places.

The terrorists say they only want the U.S. military to go home, but most Iraqis now know they themselves are targeted far more than Americans and that their safety will be even more precarious if the United States leaves. However doubtful many may be about America’s military presence there, the Iraqis understand the terrorists want to reclaim power at all costs and are willing to kill thousands to get it back.

That leaves but one immediate option open to the beleaguered Iraqis civilians: Strike back and defeat the terrorists with the most powerful weapon they have now — the elections.

Amid the appalling carnage, it is difficult to envision the elections’ ultimate effect. My sense is that, as in Ukraine, it will unify the country: bad news for the terrorists and their plans.

The new legislature will meet, elect its leaders and write a constitution. In that environment, Zarqawi and his terrorist armies will be seen for what they are — not political combatants or fighters for a cause, but criminals who must be hunted down and imprisoned or killed.

A new, stepped-up Iraqi offensive against the terrorists is needed. We must, as Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War, think anew so we can act anew. While the Iraqi army and police forces are recruited, trained and deployed, we need to begin arming Iraqi civilians so they can better protect themselves.

Also needed: a system of well-armed, well-equipped local militias charged with going after the terrorists in their midst. And a highly secretive group of Iraqi special forces, including snipers, bomb units, and well-paid spies might locate and target local terrorist cells and exterminate them one by one.

This is a war for Iraq’s survival, where the other side does not play by the Geneva Convention’s civilized rules of engagement. Neither should the Iraqis who fight for their own existence.

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

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