- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

It took Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to all but eliminate any mention of the war for peace and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq in the nightly news in the last few weeks.

But some very important and positive developments in both countries deserved more attention than they got. The Afghans trooped to the polls in large numbers to elect a parliament. But that received only perfunctory mention in news shows that focused almost entirely on the storms.

Afghanistan not very long ago was oppressed by Taliban rulers who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist camps that trained the killers who carried out the horrific September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Now, thanks to its overthrow by U.S. and coalition forces, nearly 6,000 candidates campaigned in a parliamentary election, despite Taliban terrorists’ threats to kill anyone who voted or ran for office (a half-dozen candidates were killed).

Afghan voter turnout was relatively large, greater than in some Western democracies. Moreover, women — once denied any civic or public role by their Taliban rulers — appeared at polling places in even larger numbers than men.

Afghans’ newly elected rulers have no illusions about their young nation’s future. They know they have made huge strides under democratic self-government, but they also know their people must deal with a terrorist insurgency that will go on for many years before it can be snuffed out by a growing military and intelligence establishment.

Still, electing a national parliament is a huge step forward.

Many critics said a democracy could never gain a foothold in a country deeply divided by tribe and religion. Afghans, however, are just like people around the world who want to be free, rule themselves and build a safe, secure and sovereign country.

And if democracy can take root in Afghanistan, without much of an economy or educational system, surely it can do so in Iraq, which has an economic, educational and civic infrastructure.

Iraq is the other story blown off Page One of the nation’s newspapers at a critical point in its democratic rebirth.

In little more than two weeks, the Iraqis return to the polls, to vote in an Oct. 15 referendum on a proposed constitution that will be followed by an election to install a new and permanent government in December.

Sometime before Hurricane Katrina wreaked its devastation across the U.S. Gulf Coast, Iraq’s struggle to draft a governing document was threatened by growing doubt that the proposed constitution could unite a country so divided between Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis. Cynics here and there said democracy could not grow in Iraq, as it has in the Western cultures.

But just as the Gulf storms passed, the skies cleared and the surging waters receded in the American South, the prospects of Iraq’s constitutional government brightened, too.

True, bloody terrorist attacks have increased in a futile attempt to discourage voter turnout. But virtually all sides now predict adoption of the new constitution by an overwhelming vote.

This is a story of monumental hope and geopolitical importance, both for Iraqis and the heroic U.S. effort to plant democracy in the Middle East where representative government, human rights and religious tolerance have been alien ideas for centuries.

U.S. military leaders say the terrorists are getting desperate because their bombs, ambushes and mortar attacks have failed to derail Iraq’s march to democracy. A few weeks ago, Iraq’s al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi declared “all-out war” on Shi’ites and said his terrorist thugs will kill anyone who votes in the referendum. But the word in Iraqi mosques and streets is there will be a huge demonstration of support for the constitution heard round the world.

By killing Shi’ites, the Sunni Arab insurgents hope to trigger a civil war that will plunge the country into chaos. But Ammar Hakim, a government official and Shi’ite party leader, said Monday the effort will fail. “The Sunnis are our brothers in religion and country,” he said. “We, Shi’ites and Sunnis, should unite to defeat these terrorist groups.”

This is the courageous voice of national unity and religious tolerance we have been fighting to nurture in a land once ruled by hatred, death and ethnic division, a voice that will not be stilled or defeated.

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

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