- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Iraq’s new government is a real threat to the Arab world — and the despots controlling other nations in the region know it. As promised, the United States will turn over control of Iraq on June 30 to a new government whose leaders, President Ghazi Yawar and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, were selected Tuesday. Not only will this new Iraqi team put together an assembly to choose the first representative national council for the Iraqi people, but direct elections will be held as early as January, marking the first time the population of an Arab nation may achieve genuine freedom.

The freest Arabs in the Middle East currently live in Israel, where more than 1 million of them hold full citizenship, electing their own representatives to the Knesset and sharing other freedoms enjoyed by all Israeli citizens. In no other country in the region do Arabs, or anyone else, for that matter, live freely. Just look at Iraq’s neighbors.

In Saudi Arabia, to the south, the Saudi royal family rules with no institutional check on its authority. Although the Saudi government has announced some limited reforms, Saudis cannot elect their own leaders, do not enjoy freedom of religion, a free press or freedom of assembly.

Women in the kingdom may not obtain identity cards or an exit visa, nor can they be admitted to a hospital without permission of their fathers, husbands or, in the case of widows, their sons. According to Freedom House, which rates civil and political rights around the world, Saudi women may not study engineering, law or journalism and are not permitted to drive automobiles or travel outside the home unless accompanied by an adult male family member.

Syria, to the west, is ruled by one of the most repressive governments in the region, despite early hopes that Bashar Assad, son of the tyrannical Hafez Assad, would loosen the Ba’athist Party’s grip on the people when he took power after his father died in 2000. It didn’t happen.

Not only do Syrians enjoy no civil or political liberties, but the Syrian government is one of the chief sponsors of international terrorism in the world. What’s more, Syria essentially controls neighbor Lebanon, once one of the freer Middle East nations.

Also on Iraq’s western border, Jordan, long one of the chief U.S. allies in the Middle East, remains under the rule of a monarch. Although King Abdullah and his father King Hussein have promoted a largely pro-Western foreign policy (with the exception of Saddam’s support for Iraq in the first Gulf war), Jordanians have very limited freedom of association, assembly or the press. Even last year’s elections for Jordan’s lower house of parliament — which many hoped was the harbinger of greater freedom for Jordanians — produced a disturbing result: About 20 percent of the seats went to extremist Islamists, who are the biggest threat to democracy in the region.

Speaking of Islamists, the mullahs who rule Iran on Iraq’s eastern border — though not Arab — share many of the other characteristics of area tyrants. Although Iran boasts an elected parliament, the country is actually governed by the Council of Guardians. These Shi’ite clerics control the judicial branch and must approve all legislation passed by the parliament and choose which candidates may run for elected office.

When Iraqis choose their own government in free elections, it will mark the first time in history ordinary Arabs can claim to control their own destiny in their own nation. Syria’s Mr. Assad, the Saudi royal family, even Jordan’s King Abdullah must be nervous as they watch events unfold. If the Iraqi people are capable of governing themselves, why not the Syrians, the Saudis or the Jordanians? Likewise, the radical clerics who control Iran must also be nervous as they watch.

Both Syria and Iran are believed to funnel aid to the insurgents trying to prevent Iraq from its democratic future. Let us hope the Iraqi people prevail against these obstacles — for their sake and ours.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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