Iraq sovereignty effect - on Arab world and US politics

Two moving imagescaught my eye after the handover of formal sovereignty to an interim authority in Iraq last week.

One was President Bush's scribbled note - "Let Freedom Reign!" - on the message Condi Rice sent into a meeting of NATO leaders in Istanbul to inform him that the handover was complete.

The other, a day later, was a picture in The New York Times of two young Iraqi women, both lawyers, working for the Ministry of Electricity in Baghdad. Their faces are vibrant and smiling. Their joy is evident. "Even the work is very beautiful today," one said. "The Americans are still in control. But soon we will have elections."

Let's hope this is a portent of things to come. Iraqis are freed of Saddam Hussein's long, dark tyranny. They have the opportunity to move in the direction of democracy, perhaps with bumps along the road, and possibly ending in a kind of democracy that is not necessarily as we understand it in the West.

But the Iraqis are taking control of their destiny. Their tough new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has moved swiftly to bring Hussein and his top lieutenants to trial on war crimes charges - a dramatic early assertion of the interim government's authority. Such activity would appear to be working to Mr. Bush's political advantage. Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic opponent in the presidential election, has supported the US war in Iraq, but faulted Bush's handling of the aftermath.

Now, however, the president seems to have fulfilled most of Senator Kerry's requirements. He has indicated willingness to send additional US troops, initiated a training program to involve more Iraqis in security operations, sought and gained the approval of the United Nations, appealed to allies and NATO to share the reconstruction burden in Iraq, and now established the sovereignty of Iraqis over their own country.

On the face of it, unless Kerry embraces a far left Ralph Nader-Howard Dean-type posture of criticism of the Iraqi policy - which would alienate centrist voters - the senator would seem to have lost traction on the Iraq issue.

Whatever the impact of all this on the American presidential election, the more tantalizing prospect is what developments in Iraq over the next few months may mean for the rest of the Arab world. It is early yet to suggest that Iraq can emerge as the inspiration for reform and parallel movement toward democracy in the Middle East, and perhaps in other Muslim lands. But the pressure for such reform is building, and would gather force if Iraq succeeds.

In Istanbul last week, Bush urged Arab and Muslim nations to "recognize the direction of the events" in Iraq and turn away from repressive practices. Leaders throughout the Middle East, "including some friends of the United States," he warned, must put aside the "cycle of dictatorship and extremism. Free peoples do not live in endless stagnation, and seethe in resentment, and lash out in envy, rage, and violence."

In the end, it is Arabs and other Muslims themselves who must bring reform to their lands. There are already brave activists in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who sometimes face dire consequences for their outspokenness.

Arab academics have written frankly in recent studies for the UN about the negative impact of political repression on their countries' economies. Turkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer told foreign ministers of the 57-country Organization of the Islamic Conference last month that it was of "vital importance" that Islamic countries accelerate democratic reforms.

But the economic power and moral persuasion of Western countries must be a significant part of this process. Earlier this year, a leaked version of a Bush administration reform plan for the Middle East drew negative reaction from various Arab leaders, notably President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The draft was criticized as being intrusive and heavy-handed. President Mubarak responded sharply that it was an attempt to impose democratic reform from the outside, and an infringement upon Arab countries' sovereignty.

At the G-8 Summit at Sea Island, Ga., last month, Bush offered a modified version of the plan, which involves much more dialogue with Arab nations, coordination with the efforts of European countries and other institutions, and heavy emphasis on economic development, seen as a key component of the drive for political reform.

The hope is that the new version of the reform plan is couched in terms of partnership, rather than neocolonial imposition, and will therefore be more acceptable to Arab leaders.

The opportunity is there for Arabs to grasp.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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