- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

From combined dispatches

CAIRO — Arab states, overwhelmingly Sunni, fear the emergence of a hostile Shi’ite government in Iraq after the first free elections there in 50 years that also threaten to bring new pressure to bear for political reforms of their own.

“Victory for Sistani,” the Cairo daily Nahdat Misr headlined yesterday, referring to the Iran-born Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who engineered a joint list that is widely expected to win power for Iraq’s long-oppressed majority community.

Cairo University law professor Mohammed Nur Farhat asked whether there had been “an understanding, even partial, between the United States and Iran,” paving the way for the Shi’ites’ expected rise to power for the first time in centuries in an Arab state.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II said the Iraqi elections would boost democracy in the Middle East. But he also expressed concern that the Shi’ites might hold a monopoly of power in the new national assembly after very low turnouts were reported from areas inhabited by the Sunni Arab elite who dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime and all previous Iraqi governments.

“I think what we saw yesterday in Iraq is a positive thing,” the king told CNN yesterday. “I think this is a thing that will set a good tone for the Middle East, and I am optimistic.

“People are waking up. [Arab] leaders understand that they have to push reform forward, and I don’t think there is any looking back,” said the king, a close ally of Washington.

The king also said Iraq’s leadership must strive to bring the country’s Sunni minority into the fold and ensure that the constitution to be drafted by the elected parliament is inclusive.

“The Sunnis, I still believe, do feel marginalized,” said the monarch, who had expressed fears of meddling by Shi’ite Iran in the elections, noting that Sunni participation in the vote had been “a lot lower than any of us hoped.”

Commentators said Washington’s success in organizing the elections would encourage neoconservatives within the U.S. administration in their ambitions to promote political reform regionwide.

“While the world faces problems of a global scale, the United States has a single preoccupation — what they call democracy,” complained a commentary in the government-owned Cairo daily Al-Akhbar.

“American democracy is a damaged good that the United States is trying to spread across the world in the interests of domination, oppression and obscurantism,” it said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami said his country also was being targeted by Washington, which co-sponsored a United Nations Security Council resolution in September demanding an end to Syrian involvement in Lebanon’s affairs.

“We’re facing a plan to impose [U.S.] domination by forcing the region to redefine policies under the slogan of democracy and freedom, just as is happening in Iraq and Palestine,” Mr. Karami told reporters in Beirut.

Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otari echoed the sentiments, telling the same Beirut press conference: “These pressures are aimed at recolonizing the region.”

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said earlier this year that “the Egyptian people do not attach priority to political reforms.”

On Saturday, President Hosni Mubarak rejected calls for a constitutional amendment on direct election of the president — instead of the present system in which a single candidate is nominated by parliament.

“I am not going to make a change that would go down as a black day in Egyptian history,” Mr. Mubarak told reporters.

But analysts warned that the pressure for reform risked becoming unstoppable, however much authoritarian governments in the region tried to resist it.

“Democracy is an idea that is now on the march in the Middle East even if the efforts to contain it are immense,” said Amr al-Shubaqi of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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