Democratic Iraq Still on Track

Posted: Apr 19, 2004 12:00 AM

As the violence heats up in Iraq, the level of concern voiced by politicians and commentators alike is understandably increasing accordingly.  But such pessimism is both counterproductive and wrong.

What most fail to understand is that Shi?ite Islam?the religion of 60% of Iraqis?actually provides the best opportunity to establish democracy in the Middle East.

The Senate?s most famous Democrat, Ted Kennedy, this week called Iraq ?George Bush?s Vietnam.?  Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) appeared to agree, comparing the latest conflict to the 1968 Tet Offensive.  Biden seemed to hint subtly that support for Iraq is about to rapidly decline; the Tet Offensive was a watershed moment when American attitudes about the Vietnam War forever turned.  Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) was far less subtle, encouraging a complete capitulation in Saddam?s former country. 

Perhaps it was not coincidental that as Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera was broadcasting the Democrats? remarks nearly round-the-clock, more and more Iraqi insurgents worked up the courage to fight the U.S.-led coalition forces.

For a period of several months, there was relative calm in Iraq.  The American commitment to the country seemed ironclad.  The moment that perception dissipated, though, so did the peace.

The murder and mutilation of four Americans in Fallujah was not just devastating for the immeasurable suffering and loss of life, but because of the weakness America showed in its response?or rather, the lack of one. 

The thugs in Fallujah had free reign to drag charred bodies through the streets and stone headless corpses hanging from a bridge because no one in the coalition forces responded to rescue the Americans.

It wasn?t very long after that that the U.S.-led coalition forces were facing full-fledged conflagration in the Sunni triangle and in parts of the Shi?ite south.

As soon as Shi?ites loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took up arms and took over several towns in southern Iraq, the topic of conversation on cable news and editorial pages turned to question of whether or not Shi?ites could become a functioning part of a democratic Iraq.

Whenever the issue of Shi?ites and democracy arises, Iran is inevitably discussed.  But despite the appearance of a democratic government?holding elections every few years that are 90% fixed by the ruling mullahs?Iran is run by a highly unpopular handful of tyrants.  In fact, if an honest election were held in Iran tomorrow?particularly among the 70% of the population under age 25?George W. Bush would beat the reigning mullahs in a landslide.

The tyrants in Tehran do have roots in Shi?ite tradition, but only in a tiny sect of the religion.  The vast majority of Iranian clerics, in fact, despise the despots in power, though fear ensures their silence.  The Iranian mullahs no more represent Shi?ite Islam than the Ku Klux Klan does Christianity. 

Shi?ite Islam is less doctrinally rigid than its Sunni counterpart, meaning it is more open to incorporating things like science and new ideas, including the concept of secular democracy.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most recognizable and respected Shi?ite leader in Iraq, firmly believes in the separation of mosque and state.  His belief is also held by mainstream Shi?ite Islam, which believes in the separation until the twelfth imam?who disappeared in the year 873?reappears as the rightful ruler.  As he helps push Iraq towards free elections, Sistani is adamantly refusing to place himself in a leadership position in the new power structure?something he could easily achieve if he so desired.

For those who believe that Islam and democracy?at least in the Arab world?are mutually exclusive entities, al-Sadr, who is backed by the Iranian mullahs, is brought up as Exhibit A. 

But as former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, who left Iraq recently after spending 18 months there, wrote in National Review Online, ?This week?s violence appears to have less to do with Iraqi sentiment than with Muqtada al-Sadr?s quest for power.?

And lest we forget, al-Sadr is on the lam because an Iraqi judge issued a warrant for his arrest months ago for his role in last year?s brutal murder of moderate Shi?ite cleric Majid al-Khoei, who was chopped to pieces in the holy Shrine of Imam Ali.

Seen by the Iraqi people as both a murderer and a stooge of the Iranian mullahs, al-Sadr?s support is rapidly declining.  His campaign of violence is nothing more than a last desperate bid for power before ballots are cast in an election he could not hope to win.

In Iraq, especially given its large Shi?ite population, the U.S. has the ability to establish a beachhead of democracy in the Middle East.  Now is not the time to give up.