- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

Getting rid of the Iraqi dictatorship was the easy part. Installing a working democracy in its place is proving somewhat more difficult and complicated.

Iraq’s newly elected National Assembly failed yet again Tuesday to accomplish a modest task, one that should have been completed several weeks ago: decide on a speaker for the new Parliament, approve a new president, two vice presidents and a prime minister. By all accounts this would be a tall order in a full-fledged democracy, let alone in one just starting out.

In Iraq, where the experiment in democracy is still very much in its infancy and where sectarian divisions play a major role, it may take a tad longer to sink in.

For example, Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader expected to be named president Tuesday, did not show up for the assembly session. Instead, the assembly members, the first democratically elected since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, erupted into a rowdy protest. Perhaps feeling somewhat self-conscious, the parliamentarians opted to evict the press and complete the session behind closed doors.

In a somewhat confusing outburst from the floor, deputies from opposing factions tried to make themselves heard over opposition shouts. The live TV broadcast of the session suddenly went off the air, and security officials asked reporters and cameramen to evacuate the hall.

Iraqis have eagerly anticipated appointment of a new speaker and other officials since the Jan. 31 election of the 275-member House. That election in turn should have facilitated formation of a transitional national government, allowing it to begin drafting a new Iraqi constitution. But now, by all optimistic estimates, Iraqis foresee no positive development in the country’s political stagnation before next year.

These delays anger the average Iraqi, for whom political setback translates into continued hardships. For the average Iraqi, it means continued electricity cuts, continued water shortages, continued gas station queues — ironic in a country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves — continued rampant street crime and, most frustrating, continued occupation by U.S. and other foreign military forces.

At the same time, Iraqis continue to live amid insecurity with insurgents kidnapping and killing not only foreigners but increasingly targeting Iraqi security forces and recruits. Last week, three Romanian journalists were kidnapped near their Baghdad hotel, and a car bomb exploded in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing one person and wounding more than 12.

“We’re very disappointed,” Hathem Hassan Thani, 31, a political science graduate student at Baghdad University, told United Press International correspondent Beth Potter in Baghdad.

The trouble boils down to the question of power-sharing between the country’s Sunnis, a long-dominant minority in Iraq, and Shi’ites and Kurds. The Sunnis, who for the most part boycotted the January elections, now want to get a foot inside the political game of rebuilding Iraq.

The Shi’ites, who represent about 60 percent to 65 percent of the country’s 25 million people, won the majority of the vote last January. The United Iraqi Alliance led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the leading religious Shi’ite figure in Iraq, received nearly 50 percent of the vote. The Kurds, who live mainly in the northern part of the country, took 27 percent. And the Sunnis, who largely avoided the ballot box partly in protest, partly from of threatened terrorist retribution if they voted, now say they wish to take part in drafting the new constitution.

As Miss Potter reported Tuesday, “Deep divides appeared between the assembly’s Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish members even before the session started.” The Shi’ites are blaming the Kurds and current interim President Ghazi al-Yawar for holding up progress of forming a government.

“The Iraqi people are very itchy. The street is very nervous,” said Saad Jawar Qindeel, a spokesman for the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of two dominant religious-based parties that won the United Iraqi Alliance ticket. “There’s a lot of talk of people ready to protest,” he told Miss Potter.

With the insurgency still trying to undermine Iraq’s slow crawl toward democracy, street protests would invite more trouble and potential violence that would further widen Iraqi political divisions. Those are the dangers Iraq faces as it adapts to the realities of a working democratic system.

Behind political shenanigans and vying for key Cabinet posts such as oil, defense and the interior — is not only the matter of who wields real power in Iraq but who controls the money.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” Iraqis, who have yet to try democracy, will give it another chance Sunday, when the Parliament reconvenes.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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