- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

The Iraq election represents a significant victory for the Bush administration and a blast of fresh governing air for the entire Arab and Islamic world. The election of a National Assembly represents a smashing defeat for terrorism in general and al Qaeda in particular.

Abu Musab Zarqawi, declaring “all-out war” against democracy, has openly called for civil war, a cry not well-received by the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, Sunnis and Shi’ites alike. Oddly, his objective of defeating the democratic process seems to be shared by Bush antagonists worldwide, including not a few in the United States.

Given continued resolve by George W. Bush and the freely elected leaders who will take office in Baghdad, however, the doomsday seers and the terrorists in the field will lose. Much like Afghanistan, where the negative nabobs said we were stumbling into a quagmire — only to see free elections, marked by universal suffrage, followed by relative peace — Iraq is on a difficult but determined path to creating an open society.

This is not to say there will not be a host of challenges, now that the vote has been cast.

The National Assembly will have long and heated debates as it works to select by two-thirds majority a president and two vice presidents and, later, fashion a constitution acceptable to all Iraqis.

The Syrian and Iranian regimes will continue supporting efforts to destabilize Iraqi society, covertly supported by Saudi interests.

Iran’s power-happy mullahs will seek to control the governing process in Baghdad.

There is little doubt the Shi’ites will gain significant, effectively controlling, power in the elections. Equally, within the Shi’ite group of elected assembly men and women, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) formed under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, will be the single strongest Shi’ite force.

The danger comes from two political groups within the UIA, respectively led by Ahmed Chalabi and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. Although they have had significant differences in the past, both have strong ties to Tehran. A governing alliance of convenience brokered by Iran is a disturbing possibility. Working within the loose UIA structure, the two could take advantage of Al-Sistani shunning of direct political activity to push him to the sidelines.

Mr. Chalabi’s perfidy is by now well-known. At the same time he was counselling the U.S. Defense Department, he was a frequent flyer to Tehran where he informed senior government officials about U.S. plans vis-a-vis Iraq and received misinformation to transmit back to his Washington clients.

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has repeatedly said he supports a secular government; however, three factors suggest he could actually be seeking direct political power. As a member of Iraq’s Interim Governing Council, he proposed adopting Islam’s restrictive Sharia Law as the basis for family and civil law. In addition, the continually circulated rumors he will agree to serve as president if elected are considered by many as more than a spontaneous campaign.

Finally, Mr. Al-Hakim’s evident working alliance with Mr. Chalabi suggests he is seeking at the least to amass the necessary votes in the National Assembly to control the presidential selection, if not be elected to the post himself.

So much for the possible pitfalls. Has it all been worth it? The answers, resoundingly, is yes. The most cruel and combative regime in the entire Middle East has been eliminated, freeing 28 million Iraqis and ending palpable threats to six neighboring countries.

Of course, much remains to be done. Iraq-based terrorists must be eliminated, and the openly supportive governments in Damascus and Tehran pressured to change … or be changed. This need not require military invasion; rather, strong diplomatic pressure on the widely unpopular regimes, plus expressed sympathy for dissident elements could make for major adjustments in both countries. For instance:

(1) Syria should be pressed to withdraw the credentials of the renegade Iraqi Embassy in Damascus that issues passports and visas for virtually any Muslim/Arab terrorist.

(2) U.N. pressure on Syria to withdraw troops from neighboring Lebanon — which it has occupied for 29 years — should be increased with a demand for free elections within 90 days of their departure.

(3) Iran should be pressed to expel the well-known al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists now receiving safe haven there.

(4) Qatar, where at the government’s invitation the United States has invested billions to establish its largest Middle East base, should be pressed to rein in the foul-mouthed, state-owned Al Jazeera television station.

(5) Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak must be persuaded to carry through on his promise to establish a viable process for electing his successor. The state-controlled media should be forcefully encouraged to stop anti-American and anti-Israeli billingsgate.

In the end, much continues to depend on Iraq. Historically with Egypt one of the two major Arab centers of power and learning, all eyes will be fixed on developments within the Fertile Crescent, and virtually all Iraqis know that.

History’s tide is turning against dictators and terrorists, in favor of free-market democracy. Despots and crackpots from Bashar Assad in Damascus to Hugo Chavez in Caracas take note.

John R. Thomson has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than three decades, having been based in Beirut, Cairo and Riyadh. His frequent writing partner, Hussain Hindawi, is chairman of Iraq’s Independent Electoral Council.

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