- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Sunday’s historic election in Iraq — a milestone in the country’s modern history — was accompanied by violence and apprehension, as well as renewed hope for a better tomorrow. The highly anticipated elections unfolded much as expected with high voter turnout in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas and relatively low voter turnout in areas under Sunni control. But millions voted, defying terrorism.

Indeed, violence threatened by Jordanian-born radical Abu Musab Zarqawi failed to stop millions of Iraqis from voting despite a pre-election day of bombings that targeted the U.S. Embassy, killing two Americans and wounding two more.

And on Election Day the violence claimed about 30 more Iraqi lives. Still, rockets, bombs and death threats did not prevent Iraqis from braving their way to the ballot box in a country where the term “rock the vote” has a unique connotation.

Iraqis’ first quasi-free venture into democracy, its first experience in selecting its leaders in more than 50 years via the ballot instead of the bullet, paradoxically, had to be forced upon them.

While imperfect and flawed, nevertheless, the procedure gave at least most Iraqis a chance to participate in nation-building. Given the current situation in Iraq, the fact that voting occurred at all is something for the record books.

Reports are still hazy regarding the percentage of voter turnout with initial estimates of 72 percent later reduced to around 60 percent, or about 8 million voters.

“This is not an election. This is a referendum of some sort where people are going to choose among these lists on very big criteria,” said Juan Cole, professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. “This is not a free and open election,” added Mr. Cole during a lecture at Georgetown University last week.

There can be little argument that this election was far from fair or open. Most candidates remained unknown until the very last minute for fear of falling victim to the terror campaign waged by Zarqawi. For the same reasons, locations of some polling stations remained closely guarded secrets. The list of incongruities is a long one. But then the same can be said about most elections, even in the Western world.

The Bush administration saw imposing elections — and democracy — as the only way to transform the country from the Ba’ath-ruled dictatorship into a democracy-lite, albeit one delivered by Caesarean section rather than natural birth.

Nevertheless, these elections are of particular importance and should not be brushed aside casually, regardless if one supported or opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq.

This is where the “Pottery Barn rule” of former Secretary of State Colin Powell comes in: “You break it, you own it,” he told the president. And if you own it, you have to fix it.

The next few weeks and months, however, will demonstrate if the concept of “imposing democracy” is constructive, or if the elections simply helped create the first Arab Shi’ite state.

The outcome of Sunday’s elections will be of paramount importance to the people of Iraq, as it will decide their nation’s fate. The outcome will tell if Sunni Arabs find they can continue to live with the Shi’ites and Kurds (who are also Sunni), or if instead, it will throw the country into civil war.

Iraq’s elections will also be monitored closely by Americans — by its leaders, as well as its people. For the Bush administration, Sunday’s election outcome will decide if Mr. Bush’s intervention — and imposing of democracy — paid off. If Iraq slips into civil war because the Sunnis do not feel adequately represented in the new parliament, Sunday’s elections will be seen an administration policy failure. On the other hand, if the results appear somewhat positive, allowing Iraqis to move forward, draw up their constitution and effectively set forth on a road to reform and nation-building, then, it could be seen as a feather in Mr. Bush’s bonnet.

At the end of the day, the president has a lot riding on the outcome of the Iraqi elections — almost as much as he had riding on his own elections last November.

For the American people, this election is all-important too. If effective, it will allow the new Iraqi government to begin assuming greater responsibility for its security, which would in turn start laying down the groundwork for disengaging U.S. forces. Unrefined as the whole process may have been, the question now is if a natural progression toward political maturity will emerge allowing Iraqis to regain full control of their destiny, and how long that may take.

In an unscheduled meeting with the press last week, a few days after his inauguration, the president reiterated his beliefs that exporting freedom and democracy was the way to proceed.

“I firmly planted the flag of liberty, for all to see that the United States of America hears their concerns and believes in their aspirations,” said Mr. Bush.

“Eventually the Iraqis will be able to take off their training wheels,” said the president. The question is when will those training wheels be ready to come off? And when they do, will Iraqis be able to pedal away safely, or will they wobble and fall?

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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