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A Day of Iraqi Hope

By Steve Hadley
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page A25

The Iraqi elections tomorrow will mark an important milestone in the history of that country. The Iraqi people well understand the importance of the elections, and they are moving forward with courage and determination in the face of brutal violence and calculated intimidation aimed at preventing the elections and defeating democracy.

More than 14 million Iraqis are registered to vote at thousands of polling centers in Iraq. More than 19,000 candidates are running for the Transitional National Assembly (TNA), the country's provincial councils or the Kurdistan Regional Government Assembly. Iraqis in 14 countries worldwide will also be able to cast their votes for the National Assembly. On the national ballot alone, more than 100 coalitions and parties are contesting for seats in the TNA. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq has trained thousands of Iraqis to administer the election and assigned an even greater number to watch the polls and conduct other election day duties. Thousands of domestic observers, trained by international organizations, will fan out across the country on the day Iraqis go to the polls.

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These facts would be impressive in any country that has never held a genuine nationwide election. In the face of assassinations, kidnappings and threats of death, they are a powerful testament to the courage of the Iraqi people and their desire to build a new, free Iraq.

Some critics from outside Iraq are seeking to brand the elections a failure, even before a vote is cast, unless a certain (but never specified) turnout is reached -- especially among the Arab Sunnis. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis, however, desperately want to vote. After decades of tyranny and repression, they are eager to go to the polls and choose their government. Because this new government will be elected rather than appointed, it will be a clear and powerful expression of the will of the Iraqi people.

Unfortunately, many Sunnis live in areas where former elements of Saddam Hussein's regime and extremist thugs are most active in waging their campaign of terror against anyone who has shown a desire to vote. Peaceful Sunnis are naturally concerned about their safety. Yet survey after survey has shown that a majority of Sunnis want to vote.

The portrayal of Iraq as a country sharply divided along Shiite and Sunni lines does not do justice to Iraq's complexities. Like any modern society, Iraq is a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities. Shiites and Sunnis living side by side in the cities have, in many respects, as much or more in common with one another than they do with co-religionists in other regions. Also, tribal and clan loyalties often trump ethnic differences, especially within Iraq's several multi-ethnic tribes.

There is an Iraqi identity, and many Iraqis share a sense of common destiny for themselves and their country. They are not intent on replacing the tyranny of a small minority with the tyranny of the majority. Many of the political coalitions on tomorrow's ballot include candidates from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. For instance, the slates led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (a Shiite) and President Ghazi Yawar (a Sunni) each contain candidates from multiple ethnicities and religious sects -- as does the Unified Iraqi Alliance, a slate organized by prominent Shiite leaders. In addition, many Iraqis have made clear the need to ensure Sunni participation in the political process. One aide to a prominent Shiite leader told the Arabic daily Al Hayat: "The representation of our Sunni brethren in the coming government must be effective, regardless of the results of the elections."

The critics also seem to forget that the assembly elected tomorrow will be a transitional body -- only the most recent step on the road to Iraqi democracy. Iraq will move from the appointed government that it has today to an elected one. This assembly will select a government and draft a permanent constitution, which will be ratified by a popular referendum and under which a new round of elections will be held in December. Eligible Iraqis who choose not to vote tomorrow will be able to participate in that process and vote later in the year.

Democracy is not a winner-take-all system, and the laws of the emerging Iraqi democracy already guarantee civil and minority rights. Iraqi leaders from all communities have indicated that they favor the participation of all Iraq's ethnic groups in its politics and will represent the rights of all Iraqis, regardless of gender, ethnic background or religious faith.

After more than three decades of unspeakable tyranny and a year of terror and intimidation, the very fact of this election will be a triumph for the Iraqi people and a defeat for the terrorists. Instead of exaggerating any imperfections, democrats around the world should celebrate the election as both a milestone in the advance of liberty and a source of profound hope to all the people of Iraq.

The writer is national security adviser to President Bush.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company