WASHINGTON, D.C. -- By Feb. 1, it will have happened twice in less than four months, though it is more rare than an eclipse of the sun, a shooting star or a volcano eruption. It ought to be celebrated as a magnificent, historic event, but no: the Jan. 30 Iraqi election, like the October election in Afghanistan signifying the birth of a new democracy, and the first vote of a long-oppressed people, is being presented by the media as a dangerous event to be avoided at all costs.
For months, the so-called mainstream media has struggled to depict the Iraqi elections as a fools' errand foisted on the people of Iraq by George Bush. When I was in London earlier this week, the BBC and many European newspapers were predicting an "invalid outcome" because "the Sunni population is boycotting the vote." On Tuesday, Senate opponents of the president's Iraq policy lined up behind former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Byrd and Teddy "the swimmer" Kennedy to pillory Dr. Condoleezza Rice -- and declare Iraq to be "a quagmire ... a total failure."
But despite a pre-election poll of 33,000 Iraqis by the Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat, in which 72.4 percent said they intend to vote -- including 33 percent of the population in the heavily Sunni central provinces -- the U.S. media continue to denigrate the process. "Is a 50 or 60 percent turnout enough?" reporters have skeptically been asking the White House, State Department and every U.S. and Iraqi official they can find in Baghdad. But when 60 percent of American voters went to the polls in November, it was considered a "historic" turnout.
All of this misses the point. Though the final tally won't be known for days, Sunday's election is already a success -- a "grand moment in Iraqi history," as the president predicted in his news conference on Wednesday. It is a remarkable accomplishment -- first because the terrorists tried so hard to stop it and failed; second, because more than 17,000 candidates are willing to put their lives on the line, vying for 270 seats in the first freely elected National Assembly in the long history of Mesopotamia; and finally, because so many Iraqi women have braved bombs, bullets, threats and intimidation to go to the polls.
Last October, whole Afghani families walked miles, skirting minefields and defying threats from Taliban thugs, just to vote. Little noted by my "media colleagues" with cameras at the ready to capture the carnage was the amazing moment when Moqadasa Sidiqi, a 19-year-old woman, cast the first ballot in Afghanistan's history. A woman cast the first ballot!
And though you wouldn't know it from the criticism and commentary in the media, it is the feminine factor in the Iraqi elections that is far more important than whether the voter is a Sunni or a Shiite. By law, one third of the new National Assembly must be women. Women are about to transform Iraq, just as they are transforming Afghanistan.
Last summer, when I interviewed the elected governor of Iraq's largest province, Al Anbar, in the heart of the Sunni triangle, he told me: "Women voting will change everything. No woman who carries a child for nine months wants that child to grow up to be a suicide terrorist. They want the politicians to give their children something to live for, not die for -- and we will have to do it."
That judgment is echoed by most secular and religious leaders in Iraq. The National Assembly elected on Jan. 30 will not only name a president, two deputy presidents, a prime minister and a cabinet, it must also start drafting a new constitution due by Aug. 15. That constitution will then be submitted to a popular referendum -- a second free election by mid-October. This new Iraqi constitution will become the law of the land if affirmed by a majority of the voters nationwide. Approval of the constitution will yield yet a third free election on Dec. 15, 2005, to elect a new government.
All of this seems to have escaped the attention of the president's critics in our media -- as have the television ads produced by pro-democracy organizations to encourage Iraqi voting. In one, an elderly man is confronted on the street by a group of masked, armed thugs. The man is soon joined by a handful of his neighbors, then more, until the mass of people greatly outnumber the terrorists, who set off running from the crowd of ordinary, unarmed but courageous Iraqis.
The voiceover says: "On Jan. 30, we meet our destiny and our duty. We are not alone, and we are not afraid. Our strength is in our unity; together we will work, and together prevail." No ad like this could possibly run under Saddam's rule.
Terrorist-in-chief in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, in a statement showing just how desperate the insurgents are to prevent democracy from taking root, condemned these elections. "We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology." He went on to brand anyone who took part as an "infidel."
President Bush, in his Inaugural Address, said, "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well -- a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."
That fire is blazing in Iraq. And it may soon spread to some of those other dark corners of the Middle East.