Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2005/ 14 Shevat, 5765

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Iraq's rendezvous with destiny | Ideally, Iraq would be holding its first democratic election not next week but next year, or maybe the year after that. Ideally, the Ba'athist/jihadi terror campaign would have first been defeated and security assured nationwide. Ideally, Iraqi citizens would have had plenty of time to get acquainted with the institutions of civil society, to have learned something about the rights and responsibilities that go along with democracy, to have already voted in a local election or two   —   in short, to have weaned themselves from the mindset and habits of life under tyranny. Ideally, all this would have come before the election of a national parliament.

But not much in Iraq is ideal right now, including the circumstances of the upcoming vote. There is no choice but to hold it on Jan. 30, the date specified by law, and not only because Iraq's Shi'ites and Kurds, who together constitute 80 percent of the population, are adamant that it go forward. It could not be postponed because postponing it is exactly what the terrorists want. Roiled as the situation in Iraq may be now, handing the bombers a major political victory would have made it far worse.

Not even the most cockeyed optimist is expecting the election to come off smoothly. The violence and bloodshed wracking Iraq are sure to intensify between now and next Sunday. Most of the Sunni vote will probably be suppressed. Many polling places will be chaotic. Countless voters will be confused about how to cast a ballot or whom to cast it for. No doubt there will be charges aplenty of fraud, intimidation, and faulty counting.

So, yes, maybe it will be a debacle. And maybe we are in for a loud round of we-told-you-so's from those who have all along dismissed the idea that America can bring democracy to Iraq.

But if the Sunni-led terrorists and their Islamist allies are determined to see the election fail, far more Iraqis have a vested interest in making sure it succeeds. That so many of them have been willing to risk their lives for the sake of this election is evidence of how deeply the Iraqi hunger for decent self-government runs. Scores of candidates, poll workers, and party officials have already been murdered. Many more, along with voters, may be killed in election-day attacks. The people of Iraq are paying a steep price for this election. They aren't likely to squander it.

"We've been waiting for the moment when we can decide our future all our lives and now it's happening," writes Ali , a Baghdad pediatrician who maintains a weblog called Free Iraqi. "I can't tell you how excited that makes me and all freedom-loving Iraqis. I feel like after voting I would not care what would happen to me. . . . The terrorist can kill me and many of the Iraqis who are going to vote but we would die proud. We will regain our self-esteem and our pride that Saddam and his thugs took away by humiliating us, torturing and killing our friends and beloved ones in front of our eyes. . . . I don't want to live like that again, never, and for that reason I'm going to vote."

Formally, the point of next week's election is to choose a parliament that will form a new government and write an Iraqi constitution. But the larger purpose is to allow Iraq's people to choose a new course for Iraqi society and history. The Sunni terrorists plot a return to Saddamite fascism; the Islamists would impose a Taliban-like theocracy. But most Iraqis surely want something better. With all its flaws, the election offers Iraq a chance to escape the strangehold of dictatorship and corruption in which most of the Arab world has been trapped for generations.

Next week, millions of Middle Easterners tuning in to Al Jazeera or Al Arabiyah will witness something all but unknown in their part of the world: free people lining up to choose their leaders, in an election whose outcome is not predetermined. Who can say what galvanizing power such images will have? And who knows what inspiration other men and women, chafing under strongman rule in other Arab and Muslim countries, may take from them?

"That to secure these rights," Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." After more than two centuries of democratic experience, Americans are used to the idea that political power is legitimate only when the people freely bestow it. In Iraq, that's still an idea that can get you killed.

The war to topple Saddam may have been wise or foolish, but for the Iraqi people, there is no turning back. They have, to take a phrase from Ronald Reagan, a rendezvous with destiny. As they head to the polls next Sunday, the prayers of all free people   —   and all who yearn to be free   —   go with them.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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