- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

On a conventional battlefield, America is second to none. Slowly and painfully, we also are mastering the skills necessary to win a low-intensity but high-anxiety war against a shadow army of insurgents and jihadi terrorists. As for the third great challenge facing America — helping bring democracy to parts of the world that have known only oppression — well, in this realm there is cause for serious concern.

In Iraq today, no dissidents are being tortured, raped or executed. The children’s prisons have been shut. The ancient civilization of the Marsh Arabs — nearly wiped out by Saddam Hussein — is reviving. The Kurds do not need American airpower to protect them from further acts of genocide. And, as Beirut-based legal scholar Chibli Mallat recently pointed out: “All honest people in the Arab world already admit [that] the most representative of all governments in the Middle East sits in Baghdad.”

But earlier this month, Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Conference and a strong supporter of President Bush’s policies in Iraq, wrote a tough letter to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, conveying his concern over “grave and growing threats” to individual freedoms in Iraq.

In particular, he referred to a resolution passed by the Iraqi Governing Council (ICG) on Dec. 29 making family law subject to Sharia — Islamic law.

The resolution was sponsored by the acting chair of the ICG, Abdul Aziz Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party that unabashedly seeks to bring Islamist rule to Iraq and which receives funding from Iran. While the resolution has not been ratified by Mr. Bremer, and is opposed by some members of the IGC, it is a sign of the increasing boldness of the Islamists in Iraq.

Restrictions on religious freedom in Iraq would be bad not only for Iraq’s Christians and other minorities, but also for the many Muslims who fear domination by the clergy. And it could mean Iraqi women would be relegated to second-class status, as they are in neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The freedoms of Iraqi women already are being curtailed under the Coalition Provisional Authority’s watch in response to Islamist pressure. In certain sections of Baghdad, the authority is paying religious guards to protect secular, public schools. And these guards reportedly force girls to wear headscarves. In some city councils, women have been forbidden from running for office, and the authority has looked the other way.

Also disturbing are reliable reports that such terrorist organizations as Hezbollah and Hamas have been opening up shop in southern Iraq. Travelers to the south have noted a growing Iranian presence — in newspapers, on the radio and even through the direct financing of political parties. In such cities as Amarah, Basra and Nasiriyah, the Badr Corps, SCIRI’s Iranian-funded militias, have established offices that openly display such slogans as “Death to America,” “The Koran is our Constitution” and “No to America, No to Israel, No to Occupation.”

In other words, while Americans are still trying to agree on a plan for transferring sovereignty to Iraqis, Iranian mullahs are busy carrying out their own plan: to turn Iraq’s Shi’ite population against the U.S. and in favor of Islamist rule.

Saudis are infiltrating, too, and not only in Baghdad — where some members of the Sunni clergy complain about Saudi-funded clerics taking over neighborhood mosques — but also in Kurdistan, the most pro-American part of Iraq. New mosques have been built by the Saudi government in the Kurdish cities of Halabja and Duhok. And in Erbil, the Saudis opened an office of the World Association of Muslim Youth, one of the organizations through which anti-Western Wahhabi ideology is promulgated worldwide, and a group suspected of maintaining links with Jihadi terrorists.

To be sure, Mr. Bremer has plenty of balls to juggle right now. Most immediately, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pre-eminent Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, has been demanding early and direct elections. The Ayatollah Sistani is thought to be of the old school that believes religious figures should not dirty their hands with politics. But that doesn’t mean he understands democracy is more than just casting ballots, that it also requires the rule of law, minority protections, an independent judiciary, a free press, and constitutional guarantees that those who lose an election will live to fight another day.

Without such safeguards, majority rule deteriorates into majoritarian rule — and, in Iraq, that would inevitably fuel separatist fires among Sunnis and Kurds (who may be of either sect, but for whom ethnicity is of paramount concern).

What’s more, at this point, elections would not favor the fledgling pro-democracy parties but the better organized and funded Islamists and neo-Ba’athists. Women would be the greatest losers, as they have yet to translate their large numbers into an effective political voice.

Despite all this, Mr. Bremer has been reluctant to take sides among the various Iraqi factions — even as our sworn enemies aggressively promote their favorites. And our communications efforts within Iraq have been inexcusably inept from the start. This is not how the Cold War was won.

America defeated the dictatorships of Afghanistan and Iraq in record time. America will defeat the insurgents and the international terrorist networks in due time. But if the mullahs of Iran win over the Iraqi Shi’ites, and if the Wahhabis win over Iraqi Sunni, our war against terrorism and for freedom will have taken a gut shot.

In his State of the Union last Tuesday, President Bush said: “We have not come all this way — through tragedy, and trial, and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished.” Indeed. And that leads to this conclusion: It is high time to take the war of ideas as seriously as any other form of conflict.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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