Iraq Illusions


Let's not fool ourselves about what happened at the end of January in Iraq.

Iraqis went to the polls for the first time in their history, but that does not mean that a democracy was born.

Iraqis showed an amazing level of courage, turning out to the polls in numbers that should make US voters ashamed. That doesn't mean Iraq has entered the fraternity of democracies.

The elections did not produce an Iraqi government. They have not unified the country. And Iraqis still live under a United States occupation, with a Sunni insurgency raging.

Violence remains a way of life in Iraq. Candidates ran anonymously and an entire segment of the population chose not to participate. Hundreds of died in the days leading up to the vote.

Let's be clear about what this election did. It selected members for an assembly that will be charged with writing a new Iraqi constitution. Nothing more. They did not select or endorse a prime minister or president.

It was a historic first step, but let's not overstate the case.

"It is an event of the utmost importance for Iraq, the Middle East, and the world," University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole wrote on the History News Network Web site after the vote. "All the boosterism has a kernel of truth to it, of course."

That said, Cole dismissed the notion that the January vote in Iraq would become a beacon for other Middle Eastern states to follow. He said the elections in Iran in 1997 and in Bahrain and Pakistan in 2002 -- not exactly models for open government -- were more democratic. Much of this has to do with the violence and with the widespread sense among Iraqis that the American occupation should come to an end.

"With all the hoopla, it is easy to forget that this was an extremely troubling and flawed 'election,' " he writes.

There was the violence, he wrote, and the threat of violence that led to a series of Draconian security measures -- checkpoints, a ban on vehicle traffic, anonymous candidate lists -- that diminished the openness of the vote.

And openness is the most notable characteristic of a free election.

"What kind of an election is anonymous?!" Cole writes, adding that one Iraqi compared the vote to "buying fruit wholesale and sight-unseen."

Brian Whitaker of the Guardian, the British daily paper, raised the same sort of questions.

"It is a curious sort of freedom where candidates cannot campaign openly for fear of their lives and where, despite the tightest security that the occupation armies and the Iraqis can provide -- curfews, banning cars from the streets, intensive searches at polling stations, etc. -- more than 40 people still die," he wrote.

Just as important, he writes, the vote was only a temporary and not-so-powerful unifier in a nation that is cracking up along ethnic and religious lines. Only small numbers of the Sunni Arab minority participated.

"The election has done nothing to help resolve the question of Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions -- particularly that of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority," Whitaker wrote. "If anything, it has further institutionalized these divisions.

"Whatever the results when the votes are finally counted," he adds, "it is already clear that the emerging system of political parties is based around interest groups and men of influence rather than debates about policy -- a system that may look vaguely democratic on the outside but is actually a barrier to genuine democracy."

The reason, Whitaker says, is that this interest-group model allows power to be distributed through regional and religious elites rather than emanating upward from the citizenry. Rather than a system that listens and responds to the will of the people, this system could result in "the corrupt fig-leaf sort of democracy that flourishes in other Arab states such as Egypt," he writes. That might bring stability, but it will not be the sort of democracy those in the west know -- or the kind of democracy that President George W. Bush has been promising Iraqis.

But that may be too pessimistic. An editorial in the New York Times several days after the vote said that the courage shown by Iraqis who voted, especially those in the Sunni areas, creates an opening "for eventually creating a government that all Iraqi communities accept as legitimate and worth fighting for. This is a rare moment of hope for a country whose past has been scarred by tyranny and war and whose present remains punctuated by hardship and violence."

I'd like to think the paper is correct, but given recent history, the ever-growing violence, the false starts and ever-present ethnic and religious divisions, I can't help but be skeptical.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. Email

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