- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

CAIRO For most of their modern history, Iraqis have been little more than spectators as foreign occupiers, then a monarchy created by Britain, and finally a series of Iraqi strongmen played politics as a game of intrigue and assassination, massacre and war.
Iraqis must overcome that bloody past if they are to have a say in their future.
The United States, threatening war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein because it believes he has weapons of mass destruction, says it wants his regime replaced by democracy. But it hasn't spelled out how.
Iraqi exiles have drawn up ambitious plans, but they are weakened by ethnic, religious and political divisions. The divisions also will make it difficult for the more than 22 million Iraqis to unite behind any new vision for the country. Some fear that old-style politics will prevail.
Saddam is just one in a long line of Sunni Muslims who have dominated Iraq's politics and the military, though the Sunnis make up roughly a third of the population. Any reluctance by members of this sect to yield their status to the majority Shi'ites could stand in the way of democracy.
Hamid al-Bayati, a London representative of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a conservative Shi'ite group long opposed to Saddam, believes that despite its past, Iraq will eventually fall in line with what he sees as a global trend.
"The whole world is moving toward democracy," Mr. al-Bayati said. "Everybody believes in democracy, even Islamists. We are Islamists, and we believe that democracy is the only way to ensure freedom."
If democracy comes to Iraq, it will be a first for the Arab world. Neighboring autocrats who may fear they will be the next to be toppled if the United States succeeds at installing democracy in Iraq may try to block the country's transformation.
In addition, neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran all have restive Kurdish minorities and worry that emboldened Iraqi Kurds would export their gains, if only by example. Shi'ite Iran's relationship with Shi'ites in Iraq also could upset the balance. And as long as Iraq has the world's second-biggest oil reserves, it will be a tempting target for meddlesome outsiders near and far.
Iyad Allawi, another exiled opponent of Saddam, said that if nothing else, Iraqis are tired of tyranny and want a future different from the past.
"Although Iraqis do not know how to govern themselves, we hope political organizations, credible ones, will have an extremely important role," said Mr. Allawi, whose Iraqi National Accord stresses secularism and counts Sunnis and Shi'ites among its members. "Such organizations can inject in societies fresh thinking about how societies can adapt."
For a glimpse of what Iraq's future might look like, the country's northern corner serves as illustration. There, Iraqi Kurds have run their own affairs since a 1991 uprising, protected by U.S. and British air patrols.
First there was upheaval. The two largest Kurdish factions fought through much of the 1990s until the United States brokered peace. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party have now pledged to work together in a democracy.
But an opposition unity conference in London in December had to be extended from three days to five and there was a walkout by small groups complaining that the heavyweights were grabbing power before delegates could agree on a policy-making committee.
Shi'ite Muslims got 32 of the committee's 65 seats, an acknowledgment of their political clout that fell short of recognizing them as the majority in Iraq.
According to the CIA, Iraq is ethnically 75 to 80 percent Arab, 15 to 20 percent Kurd and 5 percent others. There also are small communities of Christians, members of small traditional sects, and Jews. Figures are hard to pin down because the Iraqi government is believed to have manipulated the numbers.
Throughout Iraqi history, power has rested with the mighty, not the majority.
Arab armies seized the ancient land of Nebuchadnezzar in the 7th century. What would become the core of California-sized Iraq came under Ottoman Turkish rule. Britain later took over and, in 1921, installed Faisal as king.
Britain gave Iraq all the trappings of a constitutional monarchy including a parliament but kept real power in London. Iraq gained independence in 1932. Four years later, Gen. Bakr Sidqi overthrew the government in the Arab world's first military coup.
It was the first of many such armed takeovers.
In 1959, an assassination team that included Saddam, then 22, tried to kill then leader Brig. Gen. Abdel-Karim Kassem. The failed assassins were members of the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party, which espoused Arab nationalist politics, leftist economics and secularism, and organized itself like an army.
After years of intrigue and bloodshed, the Ba'athists gained power in 1968. Saddam took over as president in 1979 and executed hundreds of senior party members.
Both Shi'ites and Kurds have a long history of revolt. Shi'ite rebellions in the south were put down in 1977 and in 1991, after the Persian Gulf war. Kurdish restiveness led to a near civil war in 1961 and uprisings in 1982 and 1988, as well as in 1991, after the Gulf war.
Mr. al-Bayati of the Shi'ite opposition said one of the greatest threats to democracy is that Iraqis may fight each other for power or revenge.
Chaos could be averted if, with international help, a security apparatus and an independent judiciary is quickly put in place, he said.
Iraq was once among the most modern countries in the Middle East. Now it is a wreck, at war with Iran through the 1980s, then with the United States and its allies in 1991, and under sanctions of the United Nations since 1990.
Should Saddam be toppled, the transition to democracy if it happens will come about slowly. Initially, the United States or some coalition will have to provide security and prop up a transitional authority.
That model is now being played out in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 and installed Hamid Karzai's regime. Whether that model will succeed is not clear.
The struggle to topple Saddam will end soon and the struggle for democracy in Iraq will begin, said Mr. Allawi, the opposition leader. "Maybe the next phase will be even more difficult."

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