The Arab uprising spreads to Iraq

Saturday, March 5, 2011; 6:26 PM

THE ARAB uprising has spread to Iraq, and in many ways the turmoil there resembles that of Egypt or Tunisia or Yemen. Thousands are taking to the streets on Fridays, only to be met by water cannon, tear gas and sometimes live ammunition. Dozens have been killed, and the government has taken repressive measures to stop the demonstrations, including arresting and beating journalists and intellectuals.

Yet Iraq is also a rudimentary democracy, and so some of what is happening is unique in the region. The protesters are not calling for a new political system; instead they are demanding that it begin to deliver better services and greater security. In response, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not only resorting to force but has given his ministers 100 days to deliver results and has promised to schedule local elections. His chief rivals sit in parliament: Two of them, Ayad Allawi and Moqtada al-Sadr, held a joint press conference Thursday. If there is regime change in Iraq, it will most likely be through a parliamentary coup.

For all this, the United States has as much reason for concern about Iraq as Libya, Bahrain or Yemen. Revolutions that overturn corrupt autocracies, even those allied to the United States, could be beneficial if they lead to more liberal regimes. But some of the alternatives to Iraq's still-fragile political system are grim: sectarian civil war, like that which ravaged the country in 2006 or the consolidation of another authoritarian ruler.

Some worry that is where Mr. Maliki is headed. As The Post's Stephanie McCrummen reported , some of the repression has been carried out by black-suited special forces under his command. Thanks to a favorable court decision, the prime minister has been moving to take control of electoral authorities and other previously independent bodies. Mr. Allawi announced that he was withdrawing from a national policy council because Mr. Maliki had not followed through on promises to give it real authority.

Still, eight years suggest that neither Mr. Maliki nor anyone else is apt to recreate the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. More likely, other Arab states will come to resemble Iraq - electoral democracies where Islamic parties compete for power, ministries struggle to deliver services, and terrorism and government heavyhandedness flare. At best, the popular demand for good government and greater democracy will slowly propel Iraq and its neighbors toward greater stability and liberalism, as happened in Muslim Indonesia. But much worse outcomes are possible - which is why the United States must try to remain engaged with Iraq even as its forces withdraw.

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