Who deserves credit for the first free election in Iraq in 50 years?
That's the question driving a lot of the international online commentary about the Iraqi elections Sunday. There is a good deal of positive reaction even from some critics of the United States.
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Pundit Mark Steyn of The Australian, who supported the war, hailed the vote "as a vindication for a relatively small group of Western politicians -- most notaably the much-maligned US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whose faith in those Iraqi people turned out to be so much shrewder than the sneers of his detractors."
The more common view is that the election vindicated the political vision of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual Shiite leader who insisted that elected Iraqis control the country's future. The Bush administration, noted Patrick Cockburn, Baghdad correspondent for the Independent of London, originally "thought it could rule Iraq directly with little Iraqi involvement." Sistani issued a fatwa in June 2003 saying that the new constitution should be written by elected Iraqis, not U.S.-appointed representatives. As an anti-American insurgency began to burgeon in Sunni areas in late 2003, Sistani issued a further ruling saying that the transitional government had to be elected.
"The reason there was a poll yesterday was that the U.S., facing an increasingly intensive war against the five million Sunnis, dared not provoke revolt by the 15 to 16 million Shia," Cockburn wrote.
The view that the elections are both the cause and effect of waning American influence in Iraq almost certainly contributed to the upbeat response in France and Iran, two of the countries where the U.S.-led invasion was deeply unpopular.
French president Jacques Chirac who led international opposition to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, told Bush on Monday that the elections constituted "a significant stage in the political rebuilding" of the country and a "partial defeat" for terrorists, according to the center-right daily Nouvel Observateur in Paris. The antiwar editors of Le Monde praised the courage of Iraqi voters and said it would be "indecent to reproach Bush for having offered free elections to the Iraqis. "
In Iran, the country that Bush has described as part of the "axis of evil," the headlines about the voting were almost unanimously positive, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. " Ballots defy bullets in Iraq," declared the Tehran daily Hashahri; "Terrorists fail," said Mardomsalari, a reformist newspaper. The vote "helps open a new chapter for Iraq," declared S. Sadeghi in a front-page commentary for the Iran Daily.
No, Bush's adversaries have not suddenly seen the neoconservative light. Rather, they believe that Iraqi voters have seized the elections as the best means of thwarting U.S. domination of the country. In the words of al Watan, a Saudi daily, cited in a BBC press survey, the hope is that the results, "will give the Iraqi authority a semblance of legitimacy and pave way for the withdrawal of the occupation."
The key issue now, says the Jordan Times, is whether Iraq's Shiites will accommodate the Sunni minority. Iraq and Iran are the only Middle East countries with Shiite majorities.
"Since Iraq is duty bound to give full faith and credit to the principal human rights treaties, especially the ones on civil and political rights, it behooves the newly elected Iraqi deputies to become fully knowledgeable about these international guidelines when drafting and endorsing the salient features of the new constitution," says the Amman news site.
The United States is obligated to guarantee such protections, say the editors of the Daily Star in Lebanon. "As the occupying power, the United States, must safeguard the Sunnis and their legitimate interests, and must guarantee a future role for them in the state. This is crucial if further, even more devastating violence, is to have any chance of being avoided. Washington's blundering has already cost too much in blood and destruction: lessons should have been learned."
The Iran Daily acknowledged that neighboring Sunni-dominated countries are not happy with the prospect of a Shiite Iraq alongside Shiite Iran but argued that the United States prefers to see Iraq remain weak and divided.
"The U.S. is justifying its prolonged presence in Iraq under the pretext that the country lacks a legitimate and strong government. Therefore, the more the establishment of a popular-based government is delayed, the more the U.S. has pretexts to remain in Iraq," the paper said. "The establishment of a broad-based government in Iraq will benefit all the neighboring states. "
The Bush administration wants to get out of Iraq, says Italy's Il Messaggero. According to a survey of the European press, the Rome daily says the election "paved the way for America's exit strategy out of Iraq."
But Trudy Rubin, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist published in the Qatar-based Gulf Times, says the Iraqi Shiites are backing off calls for U.S. withdrawal. On Sunday she reported that the United Iraqi Alliance -- the Shiite bloc expected to win the largest share of the vote -- had quietly dropped from its platform a demand for a withdrawal timetable.
"The policy shift reflects a growing fear in the Shia establishment that if the Americans leave soon, the Baathists who persecuted them under Saddam might make a comeback," she wrote.
"Will the new government demand that the occupying forces vacate Iraq, as many of the candidates were threatening to do," asked the Dubai-based Gulf News. "And, if they do ask, will the United States, and others, really go?"
In a peculiar turn of political events, the elections that Bush welcomed may wind up being the best means of undoing his Iraq war policy.