WASHINGTON—The Iraqi people go to the polls this week and the election will be a success in spite of Sunni boycotts, terrorist attacks, Kurdish suspicion and Shiite worries over too great a victory.
The simple act of casting a vote, of participating even in a very small way in the creation of a new form of government in a land where that has never been known, is an irresistible demonstration for many who have never been allowed a voice before.
That this same small act is a serious threat to those who seek a return to a bloody, brutal dictatorship of the minority can be easily read in the bellicose statements of foreign terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the willing tool of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
How odd that someone who is not an Iraqi, who in fact is Jordanian, should presume to threaten to murder any Iraqi seeking political office and to declare all Iraqis who dare to cast a vote are "infidels."
The Sunni minority in the terrorist haven of the Iron Triangle will probably stay away from the polls in droves, in answer to Zarqawi's very real threats in their neighborhoods and the boycott declared by their own political leaders of an election they cannot hope to win.
The numbers are immutable: The Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, and in any honest election they win. The Shiites and their political and religious leaders are as nervous and cautious over their impending victory as they were angry over their historical status and long persecution as a disenfranchised majority in Iraq.
The majority of Shiites and their religious leaders have demonstrated restraint, with the exception of the anti-American radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his warriors. The principal Shiite political slate includes Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Although the Shiites of southern Iraq were left dangling when American support for a rebellion at the end of the Persian Gulf War failed to materialize—and Saddam Hussein put down that uprising with a vengeance that cost the lives of scores of thousands of Shiites—still they did not fight the American invasion and they welcomed fall of the butcher.
Without their acquiescence the Americans could scarcely have occupied so large and unruly a country with a force of only 138,000 troops—or even with five times that number had the Shiites risen against us.
In the far north of Iraq the Kurdish minority also waits and watches. They remember too well the horrors that the Baghdad dictatorship visited upon them for repeated failed and betrayed rebellions. They sit, uncomfortably, between the Sunni Iron Triangle and the northern border with inhospitable and suspicious Turkey, which has its own problems with a rebellious Kurdish minority.
There is no future in breaking up Iraq into three smaller weaker countries subject to being gobbled up, along with their oil wealth, by neighboring countries. There is no future is any descent into full-blown civil war.
The future for Iraq lies in this election, and the next one a year from now. It rests in the creation of a finely crafted constitution that addresses the fears of all Iraqis, majority and minority alike. It is the only direction that makes any sense at all.
The foreign terrorists and jihadists, the die-hard Baathist Sunnis who yearn for the bad old days, and the fringe Shiites who dream of a nation governed by religion and run by ayatollahs would all take Iraq backward into a dark night of murder, repression and torture.
People of reason and hope will be going to the polls across much of Iraq this week and casting their votes against both a dark past and a darker future.
This election and the next, and that yet to be written constitution, may constitute the only success even remotely worth the American investment of its soldiers and its treasure in this land 7,000 miles away from home—the only reason to hope that in time something better and stronger could still emerge in this tormented land. And if it does it will depend far more on those courageous Iraqis who vote this week than anything or anyone else.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young