In the coming weeks many ordinary people in the Middle East will learn if they should trust President Bush when he promises to liberate them. These ordinary Muslims will want to see not only if the U.S. military ousts Saddam Hussein from power, but also whether America stands with the Iraqi democrats it has aligned with for the past dozen years.
Palestinians and Iranians in particular will study Iraq because in the last year Bush has encouraged the victims of these regimes to seek new leaders. While some dissidents in these places have called for radical changes to their governments at great personal risk, many more people have yet to raise their voices in defiance. These silent democrats will soon find out whether the president means it when he said in this year’s State of the Union, “We exercise power without conquest and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.”
The stakes could not be higher for America’s war on terrorism. The nexus between terror and weapons of mass destruction exists not only in Iraq, but also in Iran and Syria. Given the portability of both (consider the mobile biological weapons labs), one has to believe the threat of this toxic combination is regional and not isolated to a single regime. The lawyers, students, teachers, and trade unionists who seek America’s freedoms for themselves in the Muslim world will be the West’s vital allies in toppling a political order that exports terror and seeks an apocalyptic arsenal. America needs the region’s democrats to create the transparent customs services, friendly intelligence organizations, and disciplined militaries necessary to win a war on terror of which Iraq is only one battle.
These silent democrats are watching the fate that befalls the opposition gathered now in northern Iraq. If America supports the democratic opposition in Iraq now, then it will embolden the region’s silent democrats. If America casts them aside the moment Saddam falls, then the silent democrats are unlikely to risk embracing America’s support and ideals in the months and years to come.
The democratic Iraqi opposition now gathered in Salahudin, within range of Iraqi missiles, has hoped to hold a conference where they will announce a free government in exile. Initially, this conference was to be held last month. But after equivocation from the National Security Council, the opposition has been told to wait. Those assembled in the north include Ahmad Chalabi, who helped unify the opposition in 1991 creating the Iraqi National Congress, and Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the area of northern Iraq controlled by his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Salih has overseen a burgeoning free press and the formation of a democratic assembly in territory where terror groups sponsored by at least two governments as well al Qaeda have established enclaves. Standing with them is Kanan Makiya, the author and activist who has documented with chilling precision the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. A search of their writings and speeches will reveal that they are unashamed in their support of the United States.
Chalabi, Makiya, and Salih want to destroy the current Iraqi political order from the security services to the banking system and rebuild a country that no longer is at war with its people — a country that no longer uses torture and rape to pry obedience from its citizens. This is what Chalabi had to say Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal: “For Iraq to rejoin the international community under a democratic system, it is essential to end the Baathist control over all aspects of politics and civil society.”
Unfortunately, the Iraqi democrats are looking more like one faction within an opposition comprised of regional proxies. President Bush’s envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, has gone out of his way to court ex-Baathists like Adnan Pachachi, Iraq’s former U.N. representative who has said publicly that he will never accept the existence of Israel. The Saudis have pushed for Wafiq Sammarai, Saddam’s former liaison between Iraq’s military intelligence services and the CIA, to play a more active role in the opposition. Saddam Hussein’s former chief propagandist, Saad al-Bazzaz, sits on a panel to advise the State Department on a free media in a post-Saddam Iraq. All of these men turned on Saddam Hussein when he was still in power, but have not necessarily abandoned his ideology. The reward for their disloyalty to the tyrant should not be influence in the government that replaces him.
The Iranians favor the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq for influence within the opposition. This organization has also fought Saddam Hussein. Its leader, Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, suffered unspeakable torture in his struggle against the Baath party. But Hakim and his organization want to turn Iraq into an Islamic theocracy, not unlike Iran, the country that harbors and supports them. While Chalabi and others have pushed to include the supreme council within the opposition, Khalilzad should make clear that in a new Iraq mosque and state will be separate. Instead, Khalilzad in December agreed to give religious Shiites the largest political bloc on a committee to advise the United States on the transition of a post-Saddam Iraq.
At this moment, Khalilzad has enormous power. The people whom the U.S. government decides to support today will be able to cash this access in for influence with Iraqis once Saddam falls. When Khalilzad panders to fundamentalists and Saddam’s former vassals, he is sending a message to the West’s future allies in the region to not take risks on America’s behalf.
If Bush wants democracy in Iraq, he must choose democrats to build Iraq anew. He must tell Iraq’s neighbors to live with the people he has chosen. And he should welcome the announcement of a free Iraqi government in exile. The silent democrats are watching.
— Eli J. Lake is State Department correspondent for United Press International.