On the same day that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the terrorist mastermind in Iraq, declared holy war on democracy, six principal Iraqi leaders appeared in their nation’s first televised electoral debate, broadcast live throughout Iraq by Alhurra television. The contrast between naked jihadism and democracy was never clearer. As the candidates took the stage, Zarqawi’s dark dispatch from the underworld, and all the hate and threats it carried, disappeared–if only for a moment–under the klieg lights.
The participants represented six major tickets (essentially, coalitions of parties). Iraq’s future assembly will have 275 seats. More than 4,000 candidates have assembled in “coalition lists,” or blocs representing ethnic, ideological, and political interests. The participants in the televised debate represented the leading blocs. In their opening remarks they proclaimed their often differing “main principles of action.”
Jawad al Maliki, representing the Iraqi United Coalition (al I’tilaf al Iraqi al Muwahad) emphasized the necessity of elections: “Those who called for it are larger in numbers. Those who wanted to postpone them feared the terrorists, and those who wanted to cancel them, are the terrorists,” he said. It’s worth noting that al Maliki represents an Islamist Shia party. He concluded that elections are the beginning of the solution, not the end of it.
Hajim Husseini, representing Iraqiyun (“Iraqis”) said most Sunni Arabs are not boycotting voluntarily. Instead, they are under terrorist threat. He added that after elections Sunnis will be integrated into the national government.
Adnan Pashaji, a Sunni leader from the dimucratoyeen al mustaqileen, or the “Gathering of Independent Democrats,” did admit to having political reasons for calling for the postponement of the elections. He hoped he would convince more of his community to participate.
Ibrahim Salih of the Tahaluf al kurdistani, or “Kurdistani Alliance,” reminded the viewers that elections are not happening in an ideal situation. “We are facing international terrorism and the former regime’s forces. The main Iraqi leadership decided to go for elections to move forward, but there will be mechanisms to absorb those who won’t be able to join us, including a referendum next November.”
Qassim Daoud of the al Qaima al Iraqiya , or “Iraqi ticket,” said elections are needed to establish a national authority.
Hamid Majid Musa, representing Ittihad al Shaab, or “People’s Union,” strongly supported the holding of elections. Expressing the aspirations of most leftist and liberal forces in Iraq, he said elections now are better than no elections.
The debate covered several subjects, the most pertinent being:
1: Sunni participation and civil war: All candidates agreed on absorbing Sunnis after the elections with a strong consensus that civil war won’t be allowed.
2: Security: Maliki called for new security agencies and accountability. Musa warned of infiltration. Husseini criticized the disbanding of the army. Salih, referring to the Kurdish experience since the 1990s, insisted on the “Iraqization” of security: “Coalition forces will stay as needed, but cities should be under Iraqi security.” All candidates vowed to uproot terrorism from Iraq.
3: The form of the new government: Husseini said it was a mistake not to create a federal government when modern Iraq was formed in1921, and that it will be addressed in 2005. Salih maintained that consensus is the basis of any system and also proposed a federal state, while Musa insisted on a republican-democratic constitution. All agreed on the need for a pluralist identity.
4: Perhaps the greatest consensus was on democracy itself: The six candidates pledged full support for liberty and human rights. They competed as to the means. Maliki prescribed a new political culture based on the consciousness of democracy. Pashaji declared democracy as a part of the constitution, a sort of an Iraqi “First Amendment.” And along with Salih, he insisted that it should be defended by the people.
5: The role of Islam: Candidates had different takes, but most of them admitted it is part of the new Iraq. Maliki proposed to send the matter to the new assembly. Husseini and Salih spoke of the values of religion that would influence politics but rejected a religious state. Pashaji reminded that the current legislation deals with the issue, while Daoud saw Islam as a religion of state.
6: The Baath party: Candidates differed on it. Husseini called the eradication of the Baath a mistake. Pashaji endorsed the dismantling of the Baath but not the eradication of Arab identity. Salih distinguished between de-Baathification as a purification of bureaucracy and eradication of the Baathists. He proposed a “roadmap to absorb them.”
7. Women: In an amazing volley of statements all six politicians lent support to “an increasing role for women.” It’s simple: Iraq’s female population is the single largest voting bloc across ethnicities.
Iraqi democracy has made an auspicious debut. Common grounds were established, including on national consensus, the war on terrorism, democracy, and inclusion. Cultural and spiritual issues are and will continue to be subjects of debate. Even before Iraqi’s polls open, two things are clear: Iraqis will win their elections and the terrorists are now at war with Iraq’s most important achievement: Democracy.
–Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a professor of Middle East Studies. He served as an in-studio commentator for the forum.