December 14, 2004 | Commentary on Europe
Despite the prospect of increased violence, Iraq's interim government is holding firm on its commitment to hold the first post-Saddam elections next month.
But what most people don't realize is that the January 30 elections are only the first in a series of steps on an arduous road to a final, democratically elected Iraqi government late next year. Iraqis will vote for a temporary, 275-member national assembly in January, which will appoint new government executives, including a prime minister, president and two deputies. It also will draft a constitution.
In October, a nationwide referendum will be held to ratify the constitution. Then, with an agreed government structure in hand, Iraqis will again go to the polls next December to directly elect a final government for a yet-to-be-specified term.
The whole process is fraught with challenges and potential pitfalls that may make Homer's "Odyssey" seem like a stroll around the block. On the positive side, Iraqi political parties are forming, and people are registering to vote. After repeated threats to boycott, even the Sunnis, a minority that dominated government under Hussein, are reluctantly throwing their electoral hat in the ring.
On the downside, January's election will create winners and losers among the Kurds, Sunni and Shi'a and turn the country's political order on its ear.
Considering the strong ethnic, cultural and religious traditions of these three groups, some might try to use ethnic or religious-based violence to redress their losses at the ballot box.
Iraq isn't Bosnia, but one can't help but remember the 1991-95 Bosnian nightmare. Religious and ethnic strife among Muslim and Christian Croats, Bosnians and Serbs over the political future of Bosnia-Herzegovina left 200,000 dead and displaced more than 2 million refugees.
No surprise that political transitions can encourage nationalist fervor and ethnic conflict. If Iraq's democratization is not handled properly over the next year, the country will face the prospect of more nationalist violence - or even civil war.
Several goals must be pursued:
The challenge is to encourage pan-Iraqi political parties and find leaders with appeal across regional, religious and ethnic lines. Failing to do so could exacerbate pre-existing hatreds, distrust and identities, setting the stage for ethnic and sectarian violence.
Iraqis must come to see themselves as Iraqis first, and Kurds, Arabs, Shi'as or Sunni second. Multiple, credible elections can help develop political inclusiveness and national identity.
An impartial central government with strong leadership and national-security services (e.g., the army and police), comprising all ethnic and religious groups is a must.
History teaches that poverty can fuel political discontent and nationalism. The rise of Nazi Germany is instructive. Iraqis must have greater employment opportunities as soon as possible. Economic reconstruction, including short-term aid to troubled areas, must move forward quickly.
Failing to use power-sharing arrangements (which level economic, social and political inequities) and federalism (which promotes national unity) could lead to secessionist movements and military conflict.
Limited self-rule, like in the American state system, will allow the major groups to retain some regional autonomy while contributing to the development of the Iraqi state.
Establishing a democratic system that can accommodate Iraq's different ethnic and religious groups, previously kept in check by strongman Saddam Hussein, is key to establishing enduring peace and political stability.
If not planned and executed properly, the new Iraqi political system may prove less capable of providing peace, stability and prosperity than the thuggish regime it replaced. That would be a tragedy.
Moving Iraq from despotism to democracy is unquestionably the right thing to do. Unfortunately, there is no universal roadmap to guide governments through such a passage.
Iraq's political transformation is going to be no small challenge. But as tough as it might be, a shining, new democracy in the Muslim world - to match the unheralded success in Afghanistan - would be a priceless gift to international security.
First appeared in the New York Post