The American-led movement toward democracy is slowly, steadily gaining strength in Iraq.
Not that, at least until recently, the media reports that streamed out of Baghdad gave any indication.
The bloody guerrilla attacks by remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime had captured most of the domestic headlines, with the nascent process of democratic governance taking root barely getting ink in the national media.
Without question, the despicable attacks on our soldiers must be reported. They have been risking and giving their lives to secure Iraq’s freedom and make the world a little safer from terrorism. Ignoring their sacrifice would have been unconscionable. But having ignored the fruits of that sacrifice was also negligent: Iraq struggling to rebuild itself against great odds, threats and intimidation and the progress that has been made thus far.
In the last few days, we’re at last seeing Iraqi democracy given its due in the pages and over the airwaves of the American media, covering the evolution of this incredible process.
What began as sparsely attended, local municipal council meetings in dimly lit underground bunkers is drawing more robust attendance by Iraqis relishing their newfound freedoms.
With soldiers and tanks surrounding the building and helicopters flying overhead, the Interim City Advisory Council opened for business this week in Baghdad, staffed by Iraqi men and women who want to take charge of their country.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator who is running Iraq in the interim, called the meeting “perhaps the most important day for Baghdad” since April 9, when coalition forces liberated the nation. It was indeed.
Council members gave Bremer a wooden gavel and block. These items not only symbolize representative democracy, but also “a symbol of law and order that we all crave,” said council chairman Khaled Basher Mirza to a burst of sustained applause.
Notably, the 37-member council has six women, a rare departure in a male-dominated society. The advisory council creation is the next level up from (and result of) the 88 local councils that formed throughout the capital in May (when attendance at such gatherings was small). Now hundreds of Iraqis are showing up for these local council meetings, despite reported threats by Saddam’s henchmen that attendees will have their tongues cut out or will be blown to smithereens for cooperating with U.S. forces.
Another newly elected city council in the southern Shiite city of Najaf also began its deliberations this week. A few days earlier, the city’s mayor was denounced by Iraqi leaders as a tool of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party and summarily fired — proving that democracy can be wonderfully swift and efficient.
But this is just the beginning. These and other advisory councils are the precursors to elected city councils after a nationwide referendum is held on an Iraqi constitution in a few months.
What a moment that will be in the history of a new democratic Iraq. The sight of elected Iraqi councilors (defying old regime threats to their lives and their families’ lives) voting to be independent, free and self-governing.
All of this had not received the news media attention it deserved. Instead, a drumbeat of stories had painted a gloomy picture of U.S. military forces under constant siege and of Iraqis wondering if they are any better off than before Saddam’s ousting.
In one bizarre report, a network news broadcast showed an Iraqi man telling reporters at some length that his country was better off under Hussein. Was this guy a Saddam loyalist? One of his thugs? A former military official? The story didn’t say. But this Iraqi’s words were the same old whining we tend to hear from a losing side.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were displaced communist officials who said they were better under the old system. But that ignorant, self-serving view did not represent the majority views of the Soviet people who toppled statues of Lenin and cheered the fall of communism.
It’s the same in Iraq: We are witnessing the birth of a new democracy in the Middle East, a region that has long been hostile to freedom and popularly elected governments. One Iraqi, reveling in the profusion of newspapers in free Baghdad, enthusiastically told a reporter, “I read a different newspaper every day.”
The funny thing about democracy is that it’s contagious. Iranian student protesters are now demanding the same freedom the Iraqis have. The democratic reform movement seems to be taking on a new life in Saudi Arabia. Before the year is out, the Iraqis will most likely be voting on a new government of their own making.
These stories demanded much more attention than they were getting. Now they are, and it’s about time. We — and the Iraqi people — deserved no less.