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On Point

The Threats to Democracy in Iraq


by Austin Bay
March 2, 2004

Iraq's July 1 transfer of political power from coalition to Iraqi authority will be both an historical milestone and a media magnet.

In the sizzle of Iraq's pivotal Long Hot Summer, the Iraqi people will experience elation and exasperation. The trick will be to cooperate and endure, then turn cooperation and endurance into resilient national achievement.

The democratic process of give, take, success and mistake will draw critics constructive and destructive. Don't overrate the power of destructive media and political critics who expect Iraqi democracy to flop. Though they will magnify every trouble, and tragedy, the vicious alternative skulking behind their reactionary pessimism is dictatorship. That's why the destructive are ultimately impotent. The Iraqi people have lived in a dictators' hell and, having escaped it, aren't going back.

Iraq's most dangerous enemy, Al Qaeda, fears democracy. That's the evil "why" behind Tuesday's terror bloodbaths at Shiite mosques in Baghdad and Karbala. Ansar al-Islam, the key Islamist terror cadre in Iraq, is executing its "Zarqawi Strategy." Named for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who serves as a contact point for Al Qaeda and Ansar, the strategy seeks to ignite an ethnic and sectarian civil war. Zarqawi, in a captured document, said attacks on Iraqi Shias would start a "sectarian war" and "rally the Sunni Arabs" to Al Qaeda.

An hour after Tuesday's bombings in Iraq, Sunni thugs attacked Shias in Pakistan. Bet the attacks were linked, a global call for war between Sunnis and Shias. Osama bin Laden's war of "Islam versus America" masked a war of "Osama's Islamist thugs versus everyone else." Ansar's bombs make this clear to Iraqis.

Coalition security forces and Iraqi police will try to thwart the terror attacks. They can't stop them all, and July 1 is itself a target. Attacks --certainly attempted attacks -- will surge as the date nears.

What happens after July 1? Even constructive critics will demand indications of success.

Last week in Washington, after he addressed a U.S. military policy seminar, I asked former Defense Department adviser Richard Perle to name a couple of "indicators" demonstrating an initially successful Iraqi power transfer. The gist of Perle's answer was "cooperation" among Iraq's political elements.

That's a good beginning. Cooperation among Iraq's responsible political leaders and groups is critical to success. The March 1 signing of the interim Iraqi constitution creates a framework for post-July 1 cooperation.

Public respect for the opportunity to exchange an autocratic and corrupt system for the democratic rule of law is another indicator. The Iraqi people will have to tell the world this story, and keep telling it -- in effect waging their own advertising campaign. Public exhortation matters, including constant reminders to keep expectations reasonable and to accept errors in democracy's trial and error process.

The new Iraqi leaders must publicly exercise power while realizing they face a learning curve. Climbing the curve, however, has begun. On Feb. 28, members of the Iraqi Governing Council met with Italy's ambassador to Iraq and emphasized the need to "strengthen bilateral relations." Call this a flash-forward peek at post-July 1 Iraqi foreign policy.

As for "harder" metrics, several more readily quantified measures began improving months ago. Last October, electrical power generation reached pre-Operation Iraqi Freedom levels, though the grid itself remains inadequate. This February, oil output reached 2.3 million barrels per day, approaching a goal of 2.8 million barrels. Exporting oil remains an issue, but the badly damaged Khor al-Amaya tanker terminal (near Basra) is once again loading crude. When the port is exporting, oh, say, 600,000 to 800,000 barrels a day, that will be a major Iraqi success.

Town and village councils exercising a degree of local budget authority would be a political indicator.

A very radical program would be direct distribution of some export revenues to individual Iraqi citizens, with Alaska's oil royalty distributions to its citizens as a model.

Remember the threat posed by the angry Arab street, the guys who denounce America and shake their fists at the TV cameras? Fairly distribute even a smidgen of oil income, and the Iraqi Arab street will head for the local Honda dealership. That will be a certain sign Middle Eastern political history has entered a new and promising era.

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