Far from media focus: steady democratic progress in Iraq

Recent international reporting on Iraq has focused on the wave of violence and the spike in insurgent activity. Yet only a few weeks ago, press reports were trumpeting a lull in attacks as the end of the insurgency.

The political process in Iraq - as covered by the few reports that do not focus exclusively on the number of bombs and shootings - appears similarly erratic: elation over the elections rapidly deteriorated into cynicism and despair over parliamentary wrangling. The press has painted a picture of political chaos in which inflexible politicians are squandering the momentum created by brave Iraqi voters.

These wild swings in the security and political environment that are depicted on front pages around the globe are not as evident here on the ground in Baghdad.

In fact, having spent the past two years in Iraq, first as an Army officer and now as the head of the Iraq office of the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, I am struck by the determination and steadiness of Iraqis as they struggle to build a stable, democratic country, and by the continuing, firm commitment of Iraqis to participate in - and manage - that process.

In spite of a constant threat from the various insurgencies over the past year, Iraqi government agencies, political parties, and civil society organizations have gradually expanded their capabilities and activities. They will tell you how much more they could have done had they not been constrained by security threats or - almost as important - the lack of reliable infrastructure, but what they have accomplished already is admirable, as is their unflagging determination in the face of these threats and constraints.

There is a phrase I hear in almost every conversation with Iraqis that captures the mood of this process: hutwa bi hutwa, or "step by step."

I hear it from National Assembly members talking about writing the new constitution, from anticorruption watchdogs trying to monitor the government, and from women's groups planning a campaign to reduce violence in schools.

The lead-up is the same: The conversation turns to the magnitude of a task at hand, and the seemingly insurmountable challenges involved. There is a shrug of the shoulders, a resigned smile, and the words hutwa bi hutwa. "Step by step" is the way Iraqis reconcile their great hopes for the future with recognition of the slow, painful march it will take to get there.

Take the security situation, for example. The threat has not decreased, nor have the insurgents lost their will or capability to inflict damage. But behind the headlines of the recent spate of attacks, the step-by-step approach is gaining momentum. Iraq is producing new police and military forces that are gradually winning the confidence of the people they serve - so much so that the public is providing more and more valuable information on insurgent activity. That enables the weapons cache seizures and high profile arrests that then increase public respect for the forces, which helps with recruiting and decreases support for the insurgents.

While the media continue their longstanding tendency to focus on the most dramatic and destructive events - the capture of a terrorist, a deadly attack - the real story changes too gradually to make headlines: the steady stream of volunteers at recruiting stations that bit by bit brings force numbers up to significant levels, the increasing numbers of tips to the police, the growing sense of public ownership of the newly trained forces.

The same applies to the political process. Most Americans hear only about the milestones: the elections, the failure to form a government, the selection of a partial cabinet. But these headlines do not reflect the constant level of effort Iraqis are putting into the process of rebuilding political and governmental institutions.

The long delay in announcing the government was certainly frustrating to Iraqis, who want to see concrete signs that their participation in the elections was meaningful; that they really do have a say in their government. But the process, while painfully slow, is moving through necessary stages to reach the next step.

In meetings I had this month with many of the leaders of the new National Assembly, none of the members seemed surprised or distressed by the long delay. They all recognized the tough decisions that the party leaders were struggling with, the trade-offs involved in constructing a government that would not immediately collapse on itself.

This was the first time such discussions were taking place between ethnic and political groups that have a longer history of mutual suspicion and conflict than they have of negotiation, compromise, and consensus building.

With the government formation behind them, Iraqi officials and the public are shifting focus to the next step: the constitution. Without a doubt they will treat this next monumental task with the same serious dedication and undiminished enthusiasm that they have shown at each step so far.

Those who wait for the headline "Iraq completes constitution" or "Iraq misses constitution deadline" will have missed all the intervening steps that really mattered, as political parties and civil society organizations mobilize the Iraqi people to participate in a national dialogue on the constitution.

The real danger is that Iraq's new leadership and the public might also focus on those headlines, and skip this most important step in the entire process.

A. Heather Coyne is the chief of party of US Institute of Peace activities in Iraq. The views expressed are her own.

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