Rebirth of a Nation

Article excerpt

Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh, John Barry, and Christopher Dickey

Something that looks an awful lot like democracy is beginning to take hold in Iraq. It may not be 'mission accomplished'--but it's a start.

"Iraqi democracy will succeed," President George W. Bush declared in November 2003, "and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation." The audience at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington answered with hearty applause. Bush went on: "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

In Iraq, meanwhile, an insurgency was growing, terrorism was spreading, and American forces were in a state of near panic. They had begun rounding up thousands of the Iraqis they had come to "liberate," dragging them from their homes in the middle of the night and throwing them into Abu Ghraib Prison. At the time of Bush's speech, some of those detainees were being tortured and humiliated. Iraq had entered a spiral of gruesome violence that would kill scores of thousands of its people and cost more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel their lives. American taxpayers month after month, year after year--and to this day--would spend more than $1.5abillion per week just to keep hundreds of thousands of beleaguered troops on the ground, fearful that if they withdrew too quickly, or at all, the carnage would grow worse and war, not democracy, would spread throughout the region.

Bush's rhetoric about democracy came to sound as bitterly ironic as his pumped-up appearance on an aircraft carrier a few months earlier, in front of an enormous banner that declared MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. And yet it has to be said and it should be understood--now, almost seven hellish years later--that something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.

The elections to be held in Iraq on March 7 feature 6,100 parliamentary candidates from all of the country's major sects and many different parties. They have wildly conflicting interests and ambitions. Yet in the past couple of years, these politicians have come to see themselves as part of the same club, where hardball political debate has supplanted civil war and legislation is hammered out, however slowly and painfully, through compromises--not dictatorial decrees or, for that matter, the executive fiats of U.S. occupiers. Although protected, encouraged, and sometimes tutored by Washington, Iraq's political class is now shaping its own system--what Gen. David Petraeus calls "Iraqracy." With luck, the politics will bolster the institutions through which true democracy thrives.

Of course, as U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Christopher Hill says, "the real test of a democracy is not so much the behavior of the winners; it will be the behavior of the losers." Even if the vote comes off relatively peacefully, the maneuvering to form a government could go on for weeks or months. Elections in December 2005 did not produce a prime minister and cabinet until May 2006. And this time around the wrangling will be set against the background of withdrawing American troops. Their numbers have already dropped from a high of 170,000 to fewer than 100,000, and by August there should be no more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers left in the country. If political infighting turns to street fighting, the Americans may not be there to intervene.

Anxiety is high, not least in Washington, where Vice President Joe Biden now chairs a monthly cabinet-level meeting to monitor developments in Iraq. But a senior White House official says the group is now "cautiously optimistic" about developments there. "The big picture in Iraq is the emergence of politics," he notes. …