October 20, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

A vote for Iraq's Future

Iraqis again defied terrorists and the threat of force and came out this weekend to vote for their future. People who for decades were denied a voice in their own affairs by Saddam Hussein and the authoritarian Ba'ath Party for the second time this year affirmed their desire for a free and democratic way of life by endorsing the draft constitution for a united, federal Iraq. If all goes well, on Dec. 15 Iraqis will be electing a new parliament. This weekend may have been the tipping point in Iraq.

The winners are the Iraqi people, who step by step are building a democracy in a place where brutal dictatorship thrived for a very long time. This week, the trial of Saddam Hussein will begin and with it will come reminders of what life in Iraq used to be like. Curiously, when the United Nations discusses "the responsibility to protect" a people from the abuses of their rulers or the vicissitudes of failed states, no one mentions that the people of Iraq were eminently good candidates for such international protection.

The losers continue to be the insurgents and their al Qaeda supporters. A vote for democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is a huge roadblock for religious Islamic fanatics. Earlier this month the United States obtained a letter from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, sent to the leader of the Iraqi insurgents, Abu Musab Zarkawi, which outlined their strategy: First drive American forces from Iraq; second, establish a religious caliphate over as much of Iraq as possible; third, export the revolution to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and finally, go to war with Israel. U.S. military steadfastness and Iraqi democracy will block that agenda.

Sunni Muslims, who occupy the center of Iraq and represent some 20 percent of the population, clearly feel they are losers. In a true democracy, where minority rights guarantee that it is not a zero-sum game, those fears would be unfounded. But being a minority governed by others is not what they have been used to.

The reality is that Sunnis have yet to accept their loss of power in Iraq. It was touch and go whether Sunni leaders would participate in the referendum or whether they would try to block ratification of the constitution. Many Sunnis are still hoping for a premature U.S. withdrawal that would allow them to rout the other ethnic groups militarily and restore Sunni control of most of Iraq.

"The Sunnis have no repentance," said Bing West, author of "No True Glory: a Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah" on Oct. 7 at the Heritage Foundation. "They believe if we left, they would be ruling the Shiites in three months." Having been in charge for 700 years, Sunnis may be correct in believing that and, in any event, have a hard time believing their centuries-long run is over.

Now, Sunni leaders are crying election fraud because they failed to produce a No vote in a total of three Iraq's 18 provinces, which would have blocked the draft constitution and prolonged the process. Suspicions of fraud have also been charged in Kurdish and Shiite areas.

Yet, if you look at the preliminary figures, they don't seem out of whack on the face of it. According to Agence France Press, unusually high numbers of Yes votes have been recorded in a number of Iraq's provinces; in some Kurdish and Shiite provinces as many as 97 and 98 percent voted Yes to the constitution. This is certainly high, but these are the ethic groups that tried to escape Saddam's control for over 10 years. Would it be very strange if just about everybody voted for a constitution that gave them the protection, the independence and the rights they have fought so hard for? As it happens, in Fallujah, center of the insurgency, the votes were 97 percent against ratification, not a very surprising result either.

Meanwhile, two provinces crucial to the result, Nineveh and Diyala, have mixed populations. According to the head of Iraq's election commission, the tallies there were roughly proportionate to the ethnic mix. The No votes were in the majority, only they were insufficient to block the constitution.

To ensure the maximum legitimacy, Iraq's election commission and foreign observers on the ground have to take complaints seriously and demonstrate as transparent an accounting process as possible. But why should we be surprised if most voted for turning a new leaf, considering their suffering in the recent past?

Helle Dale
is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times