- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

The drive to establish a democratic government in Iraq is being watched closely by governments and reformers around the region, the Bush administration’s lead spokesman on human rights said yesterday.

Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, said a successful democracy in one of the Arab world’s largest and most influential countries would have a profound effect on the course of events throughout the Middle East.

“There’s an intense interest throughout the region in what is going on in Iraq,” said Mr. Craner, who briefed reporters at the State Department after a weeklong trip to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait.

“There is an intense desire that we get it right in Iraq,” he said.

Smaller Arab states have opened up politically, and some of the world’s largest Islamic countries, including Indonesia and Bangladesh, are democracies. But Mr. Craner said the people he has met note that Iraq holds a special place as a potential model in a region that has seen economic and political stagnation.

“People can argue that Kuwait only has 300,000 people or that Morocco is not really a Middle Eastern state,” said Mr. Craner. “But when you have a country smack-dab in the middle of the region, with its religious and ethnic mix, it is very difficult to anyone else in the Middle East to say democracy is not doable there.”

He said that even in Kuwait, which recently held groundbreaking parliamentary elections, all the talk was about the difficult political and economic reconstruction project under way across the border in Iraq.

Backers of the U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein argued that the establishment of democratic self-rule in Iraq could have wide-ranging implications for the region, and pose a challenge to autocratic regimes in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Craner said lectures by U.S. officials or examples from Eastern Europe or South Africa were far less powerful as an encouragement to regional reformers than a major Arabic state successfully embracing liberal democratic rule.

In Saudi Arabia, the human rights chief said, he observed “baby steps” toward political liberalization and human rights under Crown Prince Abdullah, the country’s de facto ruler.

The State Department’s annual human rights review criticized Saudi authorities for a lack of political, religious and press freedoms.

Mr. Craner said encouraging signs included the formation of a journalists union and the presentation of a reform petition to the crown prince from a group of leading Saudi intellectuals and academics.

“It’s nowhere near where we’d like to see things, but I saw a lot more [signs of change] than I would have seen two years ago,” he said.

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