Arabs Look Up at Iraq's Star

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Images of Iraqis defying terrorist threats as they walked smiling to voting booths on Sunday are still ricocheting around the Middle East. The two Arab satellite networks finally have something positive to show to their 200 million viewers.

It's too soon to tell, however, if the Bush theory of democratic contagion will hold true in the region. But the election at least puts heat under the monarchs, theocrats, and dictators who think they can still fool their people with rigged elections in pretend democracies.

For now, impressions of Iraq's initial election success are overwhelmed by typical Middle East conspiracy theories that the US plans permanent military bases in Iraq or that a Shiite state will emerge in Iraq with their religious rivals, the Sunnis, ignored.

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Until those two myths are dispelled, the region's mostly Sunni-run Arab regimes won't do much more than inch toward political "reform."

Some regimes claim they are doing the US a favor by holding down radical Islamists who might win in a fair vote. Those type of groups almost won power in open elections in Algeria and (non-Arab) Turkey in the past decade, but were squelched by the military. But that theory was shot down by the recent fair elections in Afghanistan and the emerging Palestinian state, where national secular leaders came out on top.

So far, Iraq's Shiite leaders plan to avoid Iran's mistake of letting Islamic clerics dominate government, or Saddam Hussein's mistake of letting only Sunnis rule.

What really worries Arab leaders is the huge voter turnout in most of Iraq. That signals a hunger for greater suffrage among Arabs, from Saudi Arabia to Syria to Morocco.

If Iraq can now write a fair constitution and hold a second successful vote for a fully elected government, the region's autocracies will have few excuses not to follow suit. If democracy does start to grow in the region, then these nations will begin to test the other Bush theory for the Middle East that Islamic terrorism cannot thrive in nations with civil liberties, rule of law, and open elections.

Iraq itself has yet to pass that test. Only when a credible government takes hold with loyal police and military forces, can Iraq begin to eliminate the foreign terrorists and the Sunni Baathists of the Saddam Hussein era.

Much of Asia and most of Latin America have learned the ways of democracy in the past two decades. Now, after last Sunday, the Middle East might start down the same path.

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