Good News from the Middle East:Democracy Blooms in Iraq and Afghanistan

It took hurricanes Katrina and Rita to all but eliminate any recent mention of the war for peace and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq in the nightly news.

Understandably, with the gravity of the domestic tragedy, all other news has taken, and will take, a backburner to the hurricane recovery. However, positive things were happening in both countries that deserved more attention than they received. The Afghans made history by trooping to the polls in large numbers to elect a parliament.

This is a country that, not very long ago, was oppressed by the Taliban rulers who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist camps where the Sept. 11 terrorists were trained.

Now, thanks to its overthrow by U.S. and coalition forces, nearly 6,000 candidates campaigned in a parliamentary election, despite the threats of the Taliban terrorists to kill anyone who voted or ran for office (and a half-dozen candidates were killed before it was over).

But not only was Afghan voter turnout relatively high (higher than in some Western democracies) women — who once were forbidden to participate in any civic or public role by their Taliban rulers — appeared at polling places in even larger numbers than the men.

Afghan’s newly elected rulers have no illusions about the future of their nation. They know they have made huge strides by implementing a democratic system of self-government, but they also know that their people must deal with a terrorist insurgency that will go on for many years before it can be snuffed out by a growing military and intelligence establishment.

Still, the election of a national parliament is a huge step forward. There were many critics who said that a democracy would never be able to get a foothold in a country deeply divided by tribal and religious differences. The Afghans, however, are just like any group of people; they want to be free, rule themselves and build a safe, secure and sovereign country.

And if democracy can take root in Afghanistan where there is currently not much of an economy or educational system, surely it can succeed in Iraq, which has an economic, educational and civic infrastructure (albeit under repair).

Iraq, too, is the other story that was knocked off the front pages of this nation’s newspapers at a critical point in its democratic rebirth.

In a little more than two weeks, the Iraqis will go to the polls again, this time to vote in an Oct. 15 referendum on a proposed constitution that will be followed by an election to install a new and permanent government in December.

Sometime before Hurricane Katrina wreaked its devastation across the Gulf Coast, Iraq’s struggle to draft a governing document was threatened by growing doubt that the proposed constitution could unite a country divided between its Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions. Cynics both here and there said Iraq was not a place where democracy could grow, as it has in the Western cultures.

True, the terrorists have increased their bloody attacks in a futile attempt to discourage voter turnout, but virtually all sides now predict that the new constitution will be adopted by an overwhelming vote.

This is a story of monumental hope and geopolitical importance. U.S. military leaders say the terrorists are getting desperate because their bombs, ambushes and mortar attacks have failed to derail Iraq’s march to democracy. A few weeks ago, Iraq’s Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared "all out war" on Shiites and said his terrorist thugs will kill anyone who votes in the referendum.

But, reportedly, the word in the mosques and on the streets of Iraq is that there will be a huge demonstration of support for the constitution that will be heard around the world.

By killing Shiites, the Sunni Arab insurgents hope to trigger a civil war that will plunge the country into chaos. But Ammar Hakim, a government official and a Shiite party leader, said Monday that such an effort would fail. "The Sunnis are our brothers in religion and country," he said. "We, Shiites and Sunnis, should unite to defeat these terrorists groups."

This is the courageous voice of national unity and religious tolerance that we have been fighting to nurture in a land once ruled by hatred, death and ethnic division — a voice that will not be stilled or defeated.