US and Britain congratulate Iraqis on vote

Arab commentators hesitant about Iraq's multi-ethnic future.

iraqi vote 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
iraqi vote 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Iraq's US and British backers congratulated the country on Sunday for conducting a successful and essentially violence-free constitutional referendum, calling it a victory over terrorism. Arab assessments ranged from positive to predictions of dire and bloody days to come regardless of the outcome of the vote. By Sunday night, a day after the vote, the new charter appeared assured of passage, despite strong opposition and a heavy turnout by Sunni Arabs. US President Bush said the referendum was a victory for opponents of terrorism. "The vote today in Iraq is in stark contrast to the attitude, the philosophy and strategy of al-Qaida, their terrorist friends and killers," Bush said. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose government is a staunch supporter of the US-led coalition in Iraq, called the successful vote "very good news for all Iraqis." "What this referendum shows is the hunger of Iraqis to exercise the same rights that the rest of us have, democratic rights, and to defy the terrorists," he said. "Whatever the result, it is a major step on the way to establishing a democratic and, we hope, a peaceful Iraq." The view was more varied, however, closer to Iraq. Ahmed Al-Jarallah, editor in chief of Kuwait's English-language Arab Times, wrote that Iraqis scored a victory by turning out to vote despite three decades of Saddam Hussein's oppression, two years of insurgent violence and post-invasion interference from Iran and Syria. "Iraqis will vote 'yes' to the new constitution because they know if necessary they can amend some of its articles in the future," Al-Jarallah wrote in an editorial. "Terrorists will meet their final defeat in their final battle against the people of Iraq." But Jordanian columnist Mohammed Naji al-Amayreh said that while the referendum itself went well, the Iraqi negotiations that produced the charter showed no consensus has emerged on the country's direction. "The constitution will neither end the current state of chaos, nor will it drive out the occupation forces or stop terrorist operations," al-Amayreh said in Arabic-language ad-Dustour, Jordan's second-largest daily. The English-language Egyptian Gazette predicted Iraq's religious divisions will spark further chaos. "What strikes one's attention was the ominous sectarianism which underlined the Shi'ite-Sunni dispute in the run-up to yesterday's vote," the Gazette said. "This manipulation of religious sentiment is inauspicious and may well plunge Iraq into a perpetual vortex of sedition." Mohammed A. R. Galadari, a columnist for the daily Khaleej Times in the United Arab Emirates, was heartened by the limited violence during Saturday's referendum. "The media projected a view that a civil war was in the making there, [but] Iraqis haven't indulged in any civil war, and the referendum has taken place in a peaceful way," Galadari wrote. "The way things went yesterday, there is hope that Iraq will have good days ahead." Another Emirates newspaper, The Gulf Today, however, predicted a bleak future for Iraq, questioning whether Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds can find common ground. "The referendum and its results fade into irrelevance, and the ongoing insurgency and the deepening inter-community divide come to the forefront," it said. Kuwait University political science teacher Shamlan al-Issa was equally cautious, saying while he expected the constitution to be approved, he remained doubtful about any end to Iraq's violence soon. "Are Iraqis prepared to peacefully disagree without using terrorist attacks and booby-trapped cars that kill innocent civilians in markets, mosques and elsewhere?" al-Issa wrote in his column in al-Siyassah daily. Kuwait's cabinet hailed the referendum as an "achievement by the brotherly Iraqi people" and hoped it would be "a step on the road of regaining Iraq's security and stability." Farther away, the European Union praised the Iraqis who voted despite insurgent threats, calling the referendum "a great day for democracy." The ballot "was an important step to a future in which political differences will be settled in Iraq through democratic dialogue, and not through violence," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said. Australia's government, which also provided troops for the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam and still has hundreds of soldiers in Iraq, called the referendum a triumph of democracy and a victory for ordinary citizens over the militants. "It's very good to see that the vast majority of Iraqi people are embracing the democratic political process in their country," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters in Adelaide. Japan, which has 550 non-combat soldiers in Iraq doing reconstruction and humanitarian relief, also applauded the vote. "Our country welcomes it as an important step in advancing the political process," Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "Japan will aggressively continue to support the nation-building efforts with the international community."