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Jim Hoagland

Beyond Tomorrow in Iraq

Elections Are the Start of What Was Once Deemed Unachievable

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page B07

Today's elections in Iraq will produce an outpouring of bulletins that highlight the latest info-shard or dramatic news video of the minute, the hour or that journalistic eternity known as the day. But look as well toward historians, futurologists and poets to understand the meaning of this moment in ancient Mesopotamia.

To arrive at a day when many Iraqis prepare to brave bombs and bullets to vote for a constitutional assembly validates, at a personal level at least, decades of unreasonable hope, undiminished outrage and unrelenting confidence in the ability of humans to change for the better, whatever region or culture they inhabit.

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However imperfect and endangered this ballot and its results, they testify to the resilience of the human spirit. Joseph Conrad could have been writing of Iraqis on this day when he described "man, indomitable by his training in resistance to misery and pain." Or William Faulkner could have been thinking of Baghdad in telling a Nobel Prize audience that "man will not merely endure: he will prevail."

Once the victims of serial genocide campaigns led by Saddam Hussein, the Kurds of northern Iraq will vote to preserve and perhaps even extend the relative tranquility and democratic institutions they have fostered in their mountain redoubt. That, by any civilized measure, is progress -- progress that seemed unreasonable to hope for when the world ignored or actively betrayed the Kurds to side with Saddam Hussein and "secure" access to Iraq's oil.

Once the target of brutal repression and deprivation, the nation's Shiites have campaigned for months in peaceful fashion for the majority rule they deserve and should achieve today.

For nearly two years, they have followed the patient "quietist" leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and defied the predictions that they would do unto the Sunni Arab minority as they were done unto, by launching pogroms and a civil war of vengeance. They have instead stoically tolerated the religious war directed at them by the intermingled forces of Salafi extremists and Baathist remnants.

Once the rulers and exploiters of all they surveyed, Iraq's Sunni Arabs may not be able or willing to vote in large numbers for the 275-member assembly, which will choose a temporary national executive as well as delegates who will write a new constitution by Aug. 15. But the election will forcibly march the Sunnis into a new Iraq, where open politics finally competes with violence to shape the nation's destiny.

The Sunnis are likely to find ways to participate in shaping the constitution even if they do not participate in the election in significant numbers. Overbearing as a group, they are not stupid. They look after their own interests.

The election serves to define and limit the reach of the dead hand of the past, which must be understood and remembered so it will not be repeated. But the election also opens a future in which Iraqis and Americans should move rapidly to end a misbegotten military occupation that has become a liability for nearly everyone.

Bringing a true end to an occupation that continues in all but name will be the principal task of the government that emerges from the several weeks of vote-counting, dealmaking among successful candi- dates and continuing terrorist assaults that will follow the vote.

Expect to hear the word "chaos" a lot during that period and calls for a return to "strongman" stability, especially from neighboring Sunni monarchies.

But the Kurds of the north and the Shiites of the south have proved that their regions have no need for or tolerance of dictators. The votes they will cast today to produce an interim administration that is due to expire by the end of the year will drive the final nail in the coffin of a national "integrity" maintained by state terrorism.

Americans are right to examine and question the cost in lives, treasure and regional turmoil that the still-uneven progress in Iraq has entailed. So are the British and the others who have contributed to purchasing that freedom.

But the story of Iraq did not begin with the coalition invasion, any more than it will end when foreign troops end their combat duties there. Today's bulletins will be concerned with the immediate and may not be able to convey the important: The world will be witnessing a widening of the circle of human freedom that needs to be viewed through the prisms of the past and the future.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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