Cheering Iraq's first steps on a messy march to freedom

Elections this weekend in Iraq are the first test of President Bush's new peace offensive.

His first term in the presidency was a war offensive, only partly successful, against terrorism. His second term is a peace offensive, a crusade against tyranny so that freedom may bloom. Freedom means democracy, and democracy means peace, and nations at peace are generally less warlike and dangerous than tyrannies.

There will be no clear signal of victory or setback this weekend, because Iraq's elections are but the first steps along this perilous road. Many voters have been terrorized and fear for their lives at the polling booths. Others, such as the Sunnis, may boycott, arguing that the elections presuppose political dominance by the Shiite majority.

The national assembly that will be selected this weekend must form a government, write a constitution, have it survive a national referendum in the fall, and face new elections thereafter.

It may be a messy and fractious process. By disposing of Saddam Hussein, the US has given Iraqis the freedom to engage in this. It is their challenge to work it out and develop their own brand of democracy.

The "insurgents," as we call the coolly calculating murderers who are trying to subvert this process, will still try to kill Americans when they can. But they are blatantly targeting Iraqis in the police and law enforcement agencies who have been striving to stabilize the country so the elections can take place.

I have covered many insurgencies bent on overthrowing dictatorships or colonial regimes in order to install democracy. It is rare to find an insurgency so brutally committed to preventing democracy.

If we look at the course of recent history, in the long run this attempt to stifle freedom is doomed to fail. As President Bush said in his inaugural address, "four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt."

In the US, where Iraqis are free of intimidation, thousands of them registered last weekend to vote for candidates in their land of origin, driving up to 12 hours to reach one of the five US polling locations available. They will have to make the same journey again this weekend to actually cast their votes. In 13 other countries, Iraqi exiles will similarly cast their ballots in this democratic exercise that the terrorists are trying to stifle.

"Eventually," said President Bush in his inaugural address, "the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul."

So it seems to be. Even between Palestinians and Israelis, who have been locked in bitter conflict for decades, the yearning for freedom and peace is showing some signs of progress over violence. Mahmoud Abbas, the successor to Yasser Arafat, is trying to cobble together a cease-fire that would rein in extremists on the Palestinian side. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose first instinct is to respond to violence with overwhelming counterviolence, is exercising restraint and giving the new Palestinian leader running room.

In Afghanistan, who would have thought that the oppressive rule of the Taliban would have been succeeded so soon by the instruments of democracy that are nudging that rugged land into greater freedoms?

The people of Ukraine have just given us a stirring example of what the longing for democracy can achieve. Russia's President Vladimir Putin may not have liked the outcome and seems intent on turning the clock back in his own country, but Russians, having savored freedom, will not easily return to the bad old days of autocracy.

In Asia, the tide of freedom has swept across countries like the Philippines and South Korea. China is advancing private enterprise and capitalist techniques under a communist regime that will inevitably succumb to freedom's advance. In black Africa, colonialism has long been vanquished and apartheid is a thing of the past in South Africa.

FOR his second term in the White House, President Bush has underlined his belief in the inevitability of freedom's march. It is the policy of the US, he declared in his inaugural address, to support the growth of democratic movements in every nation, "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

The US can lend its great power to this noble cause. But the citizens of those nations must choose freedom and defend it. It is that commitment that we will see tested in Iraq this weekend.

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

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