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A Crack in The Wall
Iraq's election deals a blow to absolutism; there will be others.


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David Pryce-Jones

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the February 28, 2005, issue of National Review.

The delight and the dignity of Iraqis with stained fingers proving they had just participated in choosing their leaders has been a memorable spectacle of hope. Like the peoples of the old Soviet empire, the Arabs are beginning to democratize. Decent governance in Baghdad is the immediate issue, but in due course democracy–and democracy alone–may place the Arab and Muslim world and the West on an equal footing. Huge historic forces are in play.

Power in the Arab and Muslim world has always been in the hands of those who could seize and hold it, founding dynasties if they could. Absolute rule by the strongest was a mechanism endlessly perpetuating violence and therefore stagnation. Iraq is a particularly tragic example. Saddam Hussein and his two sons were only the latest in the long and bloody line of rulers bent on exploiting that unfortunate country and its riches. What determined everything, of course, was that they controlled the security and secret-police apparatus, and this was almost entirely recruited from Sunni Arabs like themselves, a minority but one traditionally powerful enough to ensure the succession of one-man rulers. Shia Arabs and Kurds and other minorities always outnumbered the dominant Sunnis by a factor of four or five to one, but they had no access to power, unless as collaborators and quislings. Saddam’s regime piled their corpses by the hundreds of thousands into mass graves.

The complexity of the election reflects the immensity of the task of replacing absolutism by due process: There were over 7,000 candidates on more than 100 lists. Having the numbers, the Shia are certain to be the winners in the election, therefore preponderant in the forthcoming assembly and in the constitutional debate to follow. Last year, to be sure, Moqtada al-Sadr, a junior Shia cleric, tried to take a leaf out of the Sunni book by recruiting a militia and forcing his way into power at gunpoint. Bringing him to heel peacefully, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani proved that the Shia establishment is both responsible and capable. Sunni terrorists including the Zarqawi group have committed unspeakable atrocities in order to provoke the Shia into reprisals, and perhaps civil war. Sistani and other ayatollahs have restrained what would otherwise have been willing hotheads from falling into that trap…

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