- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

The success of Iraq’s first democratic elections in more than 50 years has led to greater geopolitical gains than anyone imagined — uniting the Iraqi factions sooner than expected, while improving U.S. relations in Europe.

As Iraqi officials prepared to announce the voting results on Thursday, which will create a National Assembly that will choose new government leaders and write a constitution — it’s worth taking a moment to fully digest the breathtaking changes that quickly followed Iraq’s historic elections.

Even amid escalating terror by the antidemocracy insurgents, the conciliatory overtures between the various Iraqi factions, the Shi’ite majority and Sunni Arab minority, suggest a new birth of national unity is flowing from the elections that, if it holds up, will strengthen the future government.

“We are hearing some positive remarks coming from their [Sunni] side,” said Finance Minister Adel Abdel-Mehdi, a key Shi’ite prime ministerial candidate. “That’s very good. We are encouraging them. We are really willing to offer the maximum.”

It was a grand gesture to bring the minority Sunni Arab groups into the government-creating process, after many Sunni leaders boycotted the elections, but thought better when they saw the huge numbers of Iraqis, including Sunnis, who voted.

President Bush instructed us and the rest of the world in his State of the Union address not to underestimate the force of freedom to move people toward democratic reform. And we are witnessing that now in Iraq, where even embittered, anti-occupation factions are gradually coming forward after the election they shunned to say they want to take part in creating a new government.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, one of these key groups, now says it will abide by the election’s results. It is reported that 13 parties in the Sunni factions want to participate writing the constitution.

Bowing to the will of the people (as expressed at the ballot box), Tariq Hashemi, secretary-general of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, which withdrew from the elections, now humbly says, “We should respect the choice of the Iraqi people.”

In the postwar violence after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, critics of Mr. Bush’s daring policy to plant a new democracy in Baghdad questioned if religious factions, separated by centuries of bitter rivalries, could ever be brought together to form a new national government.

But Mr. Hashemi said Saturday “drafting of the constitution is a very important issue for all Iraqis, and we have to be very clear on that. We will have a role, we will play a role.”

After months of pessimistic news dispatches that saw nothing but division, death and chaos in Iraq’s future, this past week’s postelection reports from Baghdad suggest “that the vote may have created a new dynamic,” reported The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, European capitals, where once were found the loudest critics of U.S. war policies in Iraq, are hailing the democratic victory there and grudgingly acknowledging that Mr. Bush’s antiterrorism offensive is bearing much fruit.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a chief Bush critic on Iraq, was suddenly singing a different tune to reporters during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit. “Irrespective of what one thought about the military intervention in Iraq in the first place,” Germany is “strongly ready… to help Iraq to get toward this stable and hopefully democratic development,” he said. Germany’s postelection change of heart is seen elsewhere too.

“Courtesy of the large turnout in Iraq’s election a week ago, the United States and key European allies are beginning to make up after two years of bitterly strained relations over the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” The Post’s Robin Wright wrote Sunday.

Miss Rice’s whirlwind debut this week across Europe and the Middle East as Mr. Bush’s new secretary of state, timed to follow the Iraqi elections, has been the focal point of this warming trend between the U.S. and its critics. “What we’re hearing from Europe is a desire to move on to the next chapter in the history of this great alliance,” she said in Warsaw.

Britain’s Independent newspaper said the political success of the Iraqi elections is the catalyst changing Europe’s mood toward the United States. “Iraqis go to vote … and the U.S. and Europe suddenly cannot get enough of each other’s company,” the newspaper said.

Had the Iraqis stayed home in large numbers, instead of turning out in droves to vote, defying the terrorists’ threats to “bathe the streets in blood,” Europe’s whiners and bellyachers would no doubt be saying, “We told you so.”

But in two back-to-back elections, one here and one in Iraq, Mr. Bush has proven his war critics wrong on both sides of the Atlantic, winning a strong vote of confidence in each case. Now comes the hard part for the Iraqis: building a democracy that will stand the test of time.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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