(photo credit: AP)
This Saturday, about 15 million Iraqis will be voting in council races across most of the country's provinces. A nationwide election will follow at the end of 2009. These, together, could determine whether Iraq evolves into the Arab world's first representative democracy, where the majority respects the rights of the minority.
The price for establishing a stable, safe and free Iraq, assuming one eventually emerges, has been staggering. For Americans, maybe $3 trillion; 4,000 soldiers killed and 30,000 wounded. Some 100,000 Iraqis have died - "only" 8,000 in 2008, compared to around 20,000 in 2007. Perhaps two million Iraqis became refugees.
The war was launched in 2003 because of Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction." None were found. Had Saddam been a pro-American autocrat, there is little likelihood he would have been deposed just to promote democracy. Nor has anyone established that Saddam was connected to 9/11, though some Osama bin Laden operatives may have had ties with Iraqi intelligence.
Saddam was a champion of Palestinian extremism, so no one in Israel regrets his exit.
The unintended consequences of Saddam's departure include the chaos and radicalism unleashed in the wake of his downfall, and the regional ascendancy of Iran - Saddam's natural enemy. The war monopolized, even exhausted, American resources, lessening the prospect of US military intervention to stop Teheran from building a nuclear weapon.
During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised that within 16 months of taking office he'd redeploy most US troops from Iraq to the Afghan-Pakistan border to do battle with al-Qaida and the resurgent Taliban. In the interim, the Bush administration signed an accord with Iraq to withdraw US troops from population centers by June 2009, and entirely by the end of 2011. Baghdad - incapable of taking full security control of the country and needing US logistical and intelligence support - would not want to phase down any faster, despite ordinary Iraqis' view of the US presence as an "occupation."
The war overthrew Saddam's Sunni ruling clique of Ba'athists, replacing it with a violently fragmented Shi'ite majority. (Shi'ite Arabs comprise about 60 percent of the country, Sunni Arabs between 15-20%, and the remainder are non-Arab - Sunni - Kurds.) With ethnic bloodletting comparatively in check, Saturday's voting, along ethnic lines, will pit various Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties against each other. In 2005, the Sunnis boycotted balloting; now even those with one foot in the extremist camp are participating.
IF CONDITIONS in Iraq permit, the Obama administration can focus singlemindedly on the Taliban and the real al-Qaida. The hub of global jihad isn't in Iraq - it is along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Obama clearly appreciates that Muslim extremism flourishes in a toxic environment of deep-seated social, demographic and economic dislocation, where masses who feel disenfranchised are receptive to religious demagogues inciting against the "infidels."
Can the new president undermine global jihad by reaching out directly to Muslim believers? It's worth a try, so we applaud his decision to give his first interview as president, on January 26, to the Al-Arabiya TV station. He told his audience that America's battle was not with ordinary Muslims - indeed, some members of his own family are of the faith - but with "organizations like al-Qaida that espouse violence, espouse terror, and act on it." He said, America is going to hunt down those who "would kill innocent civilians."
Regrettably, in Muslim civilization the leadership choice is not between authentic secularists and religious fanatics, but between violent and non-violent Islamists. So the best Obama can hope to do is help unlink Islam from brutality and drive a wedge between the two Islamist camps. Both, lamentably, favor Shari'a law as a way of life. But "good" Islamists, for instance in Turkey, Iraq, Morocco and Egypt, operate peacefully. Their "fundamentalism lite" is something the West can, at least theoretically, abide.
Yet for such an "unlinking" approach to work, Obama must stick to his principles and show zero tolerance for organizations that "kill innocent civilians."
He might permit talks with Iran; he might allow discreet inquiries into Hamas's policies. But ultimately, as he determines that they, together with Hizbullah, are incorrigible, he must inevitably conclude that Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah - like al-Qaida - need to be defeated.