- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

PRAGUE — Few Iraqis have paid more dearly in the fight for democracy than Sallama al-Khafaji, an independent member of the Iraqi National Assembly who lost her son and a bodyguard in an assassination attempt this year.

“Iraqis want elections, but we can’t put the people into such dangerous situations — so we have to find a solution,” she said during an 11-day visit this month to witness Senate and regional elections in the Czech Republic.

“It was beautiful,” Mrs. al-Khafaji said of the Czech balloting. “There were no police, no military — the situation was very calm.”

She and other Iraqi politicians and party officials made the trip — co-sponsored by Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) — to get a firsthand look at how to build democracy from the ashes of totalitarianism.

The IRI has been helping Iraqi politicians observe elections in several countries to get a sense of what a democracy can look like.

“We used the opportunity to let them see how democratic elections are held,” said Jan Ryjacek, program coordinator for the Czech-based Center for Study of Democracy and Culture, the other co-sponsor of the observation.

The Iraqis — a cross section of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds — showed great interest in everything from the campaigning to the voting to the counting of the ballots, he said.

Not all of the delegates were convinced that the Iraqi elections set for late January will go as smoothly.

Baha Aldin Abdul Qadir, a Sunni member of both the Election Committee and the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), said he and his party would never accept an election result in which parts of the country — mostly in the Sunni-dominated center of the nation — are not able to vote because of security concerns.

“Would you in America accept such a result?” he asked.

Mr. Qadir, whose party announced that it was withdrawing from the interim Iraqi government shortly after the U.S.-led troops began their offensive to retake Fallujah last week, declined to say what the IIP would do if it is dissatisfied with the election process.

But reflecting on his experience in the Czech Republic, he said, “The most interesting thing for me is how democracy is good for all people. So I hope we’ll create a democracy.”

The visitors received lots of advice from Czech politicians such as Marek Benda, a student revolutionary during the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism and now serves as a senator. He advised the Iraqis to:

• Do everything as quickly as possible — especially writing a constitution — because the more time the leaders spend trying to decide what to do, the more influence other forces will gain.

• Maintain good relations with the United States, if only for the security guarantees that cooperation can bring. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and has not regretted it.

• Confront the crimes of the past regime. The Czechs failed to do this, and many see this as the reason why the Communist Party is supported by 20 percent of the public.

• Outlaw nationalist parties if you can. Mr. Benda said this was probably not possible in Iraq, but blamed such parties for the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Jan Urban, a longtime dissident, said his biggest lament was that the Czechs didn’t form a Truth and Reconciliation Committee like the one that was established by the post-apartheid government in South Africa.

Countries need to confront their history honestly, he said, so that people can say, “My country is willing to listen to my grief and pain and is willing to think about it and what to do with it.”

“It’s much more important than retribution itself,” Mr. Urban said. “It’s about symbols — it’s about how you define good and evil.”

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