Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Iraq takes another step forward

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

How do we know last week's vote in Iraq was good news for the Bush administration and its project to move a nation from tyranny to liberty in the heart of the Middle East?

Was it the fact that Iraqis negotiated right up to the week of election to come up with a compromise designed to unite all Iraqis? Was it the fact that more than 10 million Iraqis went to the polls under threat of violence—a higher turnout than January's election? Was it the fact that Iraqi soldiers and policemen, along with U.S. forces, were able to keep jihadist and Baathist elements from disrupting voting and that the election took place in relative peace? Or the fact that Iraqi voters apparently approved the country's new constitution? Or that the Iraqi people and the U.S. government had achieved yet another milestone in the blueprint for a new, post-Saddam Hussein Iraq?

Of course, all these facts made for a good-news day—a day that one day may prove an epic day in the history of Iraq and the region. But here's how you really know: the restrained, almost perfunctory, report-and-run reaction here in America to this past weekend's news out of Iraq.

Imagine if violence had exploded across Iraq as voters trooped to the polls. Imagine if Sunnis had boycotted the election or managed to torpedo the new constitution. Why, we would be well into an extended run of commentary on the Iraq debacle. Anti-warniks would be assuring us anew that we are "losing" Iraq. The media would be searching for another senator to call Iraq—what else?—a quagmire. "Peace Mom" Cindy Sheehan might even be back in the news.

But what happens when 10 million Iraqis defy terrorists and thugs to go to the polls and approve a new constitution? What happens when the Iraqis, Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites demonstrate the habits of democratic politics and civil society over the entire process? What happens here when another of the benchmarks in Iraq's transformation is achieved?

Here's what: A short break in the routine carping about the Iraq war, a day where the focus isn't entirely on the latest bombing or U.S. casualties, a grudging if guarded acknowledgement of the election's results. But that's about it. The Iraqis pass a constitution that guarantees representative government and human rights for the first time in their history. The United States moves another step closer to reshaping Iraq and the terror-producing Islamic world. Wonderful. Can't we get back to discussing Abu Ghraib or Valerie Plame?

It's not that we should all stand up and celebrate Victory in Iraq Day. We're a ways from achieving victory there; we probably won't know for sure if Iraq is a success until after our troops go home. There are more milestones and hard work ahead. Five U.S. soldiers were killed there Saturday, and more, no doubt, will be in the months ahead. But something more than a stingy en passant acknowledgement would seem in order—if only to honor the U.S. soldiers who are fighting and dying to facilitate the purple-thumb revolution in Iraq.

What was achieved would seem to be as worthy of note as Abu Ghraib. Why are our successes there given the silent treatment while missteps of less moment are given far more extensive, almost obsessive, coverage? Why do we know Cindy Sheehan but not the countless other moms who support what their sons died fighting for in Iraq?

Maybe we're all supposed to believe that we're "losing" Iraq. (After all, didn't NPR report another bombing or slug of U.S. casualties there?) Yet, even before last weekend's election, less remarked-on news out of Iraq undercut our nation's quagmire chorus. Recently, for example, U.S. and Iraqi forces killed Abdullah Abu Azzam, the No. 2 leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and the architect of the suicide-bombing campaign.

Things seem to be going only slightly better for Osama bin Laden's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In an intercepted letter to al-Qaida's man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Zawahiri hardly sounds like he's presiding over the rout of Americans in Iraq or anywhere else. He's concerned about the Pakistani army's operations in tribal areas where al-Qaida and the "Mujahadin" had found sanctuary. He asks Zarqawi for money instead of offering him money to help jihad in Iraqi. And he lets Zarqawi know that blowing up Iraqi Shiites is not such a hot plan. A few snippets from Zawahiri's May letter:

"[T]he Jihadist movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve ... [M]any of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shi'a ... I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half this battle is taking place in ... the media. And that we are in a race for the hearts and minds of our nation."

It certainly doesn't sound as if Zawahiri thinks al-Qaida's Iraq contingent is winning hearts and minds—and that was before last weekend's election.

But, don't let that get out here at home.

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