Joel Mowbray

Although President Bush devoted much time to foreign policy in his State of the Union address, there is one issue he did not tackle in detail that could yet cause him political harm before November: Islamists? increasing power inside Iraq.

  Most media attention has focused on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq?s most powerful Shi?ite cleric, who has repeatedly called for immediate, direct elections in recent weeks.  Given that Sistani has been told by the United Nations, among others, that ?democracy? takes just a few months and the casting of ballots, the cleric?s position seems nothing if not reasonable.

  Establishing direct elections before the foundations of a free society?free press and freedoms of religion and speech most importantly?have taken root, however, can lead to very un-democratic outcomes, particularly if radical Islamists take the reins.  Iran?s 1979 referendum is the ultimate cautionary tale.  Most Iranians regretted the result within months, yet the country is still in the clutches of the mullahs a quarter-century later.

  Iraq is already taking steps in Iran?s direction.

  Last month, the Iraqi Governing Council decided to reverse course on decades of modernized civil law in order to embrace sharia, or Islamic law.  Sharia is not the same in all implementations, but in any form it is almost certain to mark a step back for the women of Iraq.  And if sharia is used as the universal civil law, the rights of all religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims, could be jeopardized.

  The U.S. civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, has yet to approve or veto the IGC?s embrace of Islamic law, although many administration officials believe he is unlikely to stand up to the IGC on such a significant issue.  If he does allow it, there will no doubt be a cavalcade of critics lining up to say, ?I told you so.?

  Before the liberation of Iraq, naysayers and doomsdayers predicted that ousting Saddam would create a haven for radical Islamic terrorists, actually aiding al Qaeda.  The argument went that Saddam was a bad guy, but at least he was a secular bad guy?someone who was keeping the Islamist threat at bay.

  With the growing Islamist influence in Iraq, it is tempting to say that the critics who would have preferred that Saddam stay in power were right.  But they weren?t then, and they aren?t now.  That doesn?t change the fact, however, that something needs to be done to prevent Iraq from going the route of its neighbor Iran.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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