- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

Abu Musab Zarqawi is the new bad kid on the block, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head. In an audiotape released last week on a Web site, Zarqawi vowed to fight the very concept of democracy and to do his best to perturb today’s balloting in Iraq.

The Jordanian-born leader of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency, the self-declared emir of the Iraqi revolt and al Qaeda’s man in Iraq, issued a statement that borders on the absurd — if the voice on the tape is truly his. The tape says: “We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it.”

Even the staunchest of Stalinists who shunned democracy and its institutions at least pretended to govern in the name of the proletariat. They installed “people’s tribunals,” “people’s armies” and “people’s socialist republics.” And even though few people had any say in how things were done, the communists threw around the words “democratic” for good form.

Zarqawi, however, doesn’t mess around with semantics; he goes straight to the point, not bothering to try and hide his intentions: “Candidates in the elections are seeking to become demigods, while those who vote for them are infidels.”

Calling the candidates “demigods” is somewhat an overstatement given that the contenders in tomorrow’s voting, for the most part, have remained anonymous for obvious security reasons. Zarqawi and his zealots have been targeting just about anyone involved in the election.

One of the oddities is that Iraqis will go to the polls — those brave enough to defy Zarqawi’s threats of bombs and assassination — not knowing exactly whom they are electing to the 275-member assembly and whom they are choosing to fill the governing councils in each of 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish region also will elect a Kurdistan National Assembly. But that’s another story. In turn, Iraq’s elected parliament will vote for a prime minister and draft a new constitution.

Iraqis will vote for a slate rather than a candidate. Each of the country’s 111 political entities — parties, individuals or coalitions — running for the Iraqi National Assembly is putting forward a slate in the party’s name. Voters will cast ballots for the slate, or list. There are a total of 7,785 candidates, not counting the 14 Kurdish parties running for 111 seats in the separate Kurdish National Assembly.

Zarqawi, credited with much of the violence that has gripped Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, is also believed responsible for many of the kidnappings and beheadings. His aim, as he so blatantly said, is to stop the elections, no matter the cost.

Why would anyone be against democracy or free elections, if the voting was carried out correctly? To be sure, not everyone walks away pleased with an election’s outcome in any democratic society. But as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other that have been tried.”

Are elections un-Islamic? And, more to the point, why would Zarqawi so vehemently oppose the voting?

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations — CAIR — addressed the first question. He told United Press International that in Islam the concept of “shura” is not incompatible with democracy. Shura is basically a decisionmaking process that has existed in Islam since the time of the Prophet Mohammed. “Obviously, anyone who says an elected government is not representative is against the concept of shura,” Mr. Hooper said.

This is the key: a representative government. Zarqawi on his tape calls on Sunnis to fight against the election. Today’s election, which will go ahead despite its many flaws and Zarqawi’s zany concept. Zarqawi wants to prevent the Shi’ite majority — roughly 60 percent to 65 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people — from winning the upper hand, which is inevitable but something several of Iraq’s Sunni neighbors dread as well. Well-informed intelligence sources say more than one of Iraq’s neighbors is financing and arming the Sunni-led revolt.

Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission estimated there are 14.27 million eligible voters inside and 1.2 million to 2 million outside Iraq. A December 2004 internal U.S. State Department poll estimated 32 percent of Iraqi Sunnis are “very likely” to vote, while 87 percent of Shi’ites are “very likely” to vote.

Do the numbers. Elementary, my dear Watson: The Shi’ites are the majority. Zarqawi — and his backers — would rather plunge the Sunnis and Shi’ites into civil war than see governing power pass to the Shi’ites, whom extremist Sunnis regard as heretics. There is also fear of an alliance with Iran that would further empower Tehran, ruled by the Shi’ite clergy.

To help secure these elections, about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be on duty on Election Day, supported by some 125,000 Iraqi security forces. Another 25,000 troops from about 29 other nations will also be on hand to secure 6,000 polling stations that will require approximately 194,000 poll workers. Assisting them will be 29 international organizations, including observers from the United Nations, the International Foundation for the Electoral Systems, and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

The birth of democracy, like that of a newborn child, is not without pain. Iraq’s first babysteps into a very shaky, very iffy and very fragile democracy will be far from perfect, and painful.

Some of Iraq’s leaders have already called for postponing the elections, afraid that even the thousands of troops will not be able to secure Iraq to allow a truly representative election.

Indeed, the process is flawed and far from perfect. The election will be contested amid cries it was unrepresentative.

Tomorrow’s voting will bring disappointment to many. Iraqis who think it will end the violence will be disappointed, as Zarqawi will continue fighting until Iraqis get a grip on the security situation. Iraqis who see the elections as an end of the U.S. occupation of their country will find this will not be the case; all indications are U.S. forces will remain in Iraq at least another two years.

And those in the United States who hope the elections will be the first step toward a stable Iraq, allowing for withdrawal of our forces, will also realize this spoon-fed democracy is not the solution either. But it is too late to turn back now.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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