It's way too early for self-congratulation about democracy in Iraq

February 14, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - It's a good time to be an orthopedic surgeon in a red state because lots of Republicans have dislocated their shoulders patting themselves on the back. They interpret the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq as a rousing vindication of the administration's policies as well as a stinging rebuke to its critics.

"America's willful defeatists," crowed National Review Online, "look particularly puny in light of the millions who turned out to vote because they believe in the new Iraq."

But what did the elections prove that comes as any surprise? Contrary to the claims of the administration's supporters, critics of the war never opposed letting Iraqis vote. Nor did they say Iraqis lacked interest in voting. In fact, since the 2003 invasion, the chief obstacle to elections in Iraq was the Bush administration.

Under the U.S. occupation, it took nearly two years to bring about this introduction to democracy. For much of that time, the Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was demanding early elections to choose a government and the American occupation authority was refusing, preferring a complicated system of regional caucuses.

The Bush administration wanted to put off a vote for several reasons. One was the supposed lack of reliable voter rolls. Another was the fear the Shiites would win and demand an Iran-style Islamic regime.

Finally, no one in the White House wanted an Iraqi election during the American presidential campaign, for fear it would go badly and impede Bush's re-election.

For all the triumphal pronouncements, no one knows yet what the actual turnout was. But it would not be a surprise if Iraq's Shiites and Kurds turned out in force.

The Shiites are keen on democracy mainly because they account for about 60 percent of the population. When you have 60 percent of the electorate, what's not to like about majority rule? The Kurds have the semi-autonomous enclave of Kurdistan, and they made it clear they would go to the polls to protect it.

The real question on Jan. 30 was whether Sunnis would vote in substantial numbers, and there is little evidence so far to suggest they did. Their turnout was so low in Saddam Hussein's home province of Salahuddin, where they constitute a majority, that the Shiite coalition actually led in the voting.

Why does it matter if the Sunnis voted? Because they are at the core of the insurgency. Sunnis, who are 20 percent of the population, are accustomed to holding power and are fearful of how they will fare if the Shiites are in charge. If the Sunnis didn't vote, they'll have little representation in the new parliament, little say in drafting the new constitution and little reason to reject violent resistance.

Bush supporters act as though it's a miracle to be able to get voters to the polls amid so much unrest. In fact, there are many cases in which elections attracted lots of voters despite the bombs and bullets flying around them - El Salvador in 1982, Uruguay in 1971, even Russia during the 1917 revolution.

It's also wishful thinking to suppose that the Iraqis who voted share President Bush's shining vision of a free democracy friendly to the United States. A poll in August found that 70 percent of Iraqis want an Islamic state.

As for the prevailing attitude toward America, the leader of the Shiite coalition that finished first in the election said afterward, "No one welcomes foreign troops in Iraq." Writes Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, "Most Shiites who voted on Sunday thought they were voting for an end to U.S. hegemony in their country."

The people who are the real problem in Iraq, of course, are the insurgents, who are not about to be appeased by the chance to vote.

The election was an inspiring spectacle, but an assessment of its effect on the fate of Iraq will have to wait. The self-congratulation should wait as well.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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