It was truly a great day for the Iraqi people, even if the blood of heroes had to spill

Large numbers risked their lives to vote. In so doing they were making a moral statement. They want democracy
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The Independent Online

An infant democracy is a frail plant. It often needs watering with blood, and best-quality blood at that: the blood of heroes. Thus it was in Iraq yesterday.

An infant democracy is a frail plant. It often needs watering with blood, and best-quality blood at that: the blood of heroes. Thus it was in Iraq yesterday.

The gravest of doubts has been expressed, for the best of reasons, as to whether Iraqis where ready for democracy. Democracy is neither a universal norm nor a spontaneous development. Only around a dozen countries can claim to have had stable democracy for the past 50 years, and they have all been favoured by history, geography and prosperity. They were also living under the rule of law before they became democracies. Their citizens had rights before they had votes.

None of that is true of Iraq, whose very existence as a nation has the shallowest of roots. Iraq was invented after the First World War by the British and the French, while they were dividing up the former Turkish Empire. It was decided that three wilayats of the Ottoman Empire should become one country under a Hashemite Prince from the Hejaz. The new rulers had little in common with their subjects. Many of the subjects had little in common with one another. The Hashemites were overthrown in 1958; the conflict continues between Shia, Sunni and Kurd.

So Iraq would appear the most infertile soil for democracy - except for one factor. The people want it. Yesterday, large numbers of them risked their lives to vote and in many cases they had to spend hours queuing; hours as potential targets. In so doing, they were not just making a political statement. They were making a moral statement. That should be a compelling argument even to those who oppose the war. It should be a conclusive argument to everyone who is in favour of peace.

There are justified criticisms to be made of the Americans. Two books ought to be written. "How to win a war with triumph and elan" and "How to jeopardise the gains of a brilliant military campaign by a lamentably organised peace".

In hindsight, it was idiotic to allow the Pentagon to be in charge of the post-war reconstruction. It cannot be assumed that those who are best at winning battles are also likely to be good at building peace. Indeed - more hindsight - it would have been better if we British had played a much bigger role. Unlike the Americans, who were always reluctant imperialists, we enjoyed running other countries and did it rather well.

In Iraq, the worst mistake was to stand down the Iraqi Army and sack government officials who had been members of the Baath party.

In post-war Germany, the occupiers were happy to use middle-ranking bureaucrats from the Nazi era. A fair number of Wehrmacht officers were allowed to serve in the post-war German Army. The victorious allies understood that it would not be possible to make Germany work unless they employed Germans who knew how to make things work.

It would have been common sense to do the same in Iraq, even if the efficiency levels would not have been as high. Moreover, the dismissal of the Baathists was a brutal reminder to the Sunni minority that they had lost their power. Power gone, and with it livelihood, to be replaced by the fear of Shia reprisals; no wonder the Iraqi insurgency has found it easy to gather recruits.

Perhaps that will now be harder. Though it is impossible to predict the course of events over the next few weeks, it would be foolish to discount the possibility that the election will enhance the government's authority. Much will depend on the skill displayed by Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister. If he can create a broadly-based government and do enough to persuade the majority of Sunnis that they have a future in the new Iraq, the atmosphere might rapidly improve.

That said, a lot of people, enraged and heavily armed, will do whatever possible to prevent that happening. They are bound to have some successes. The new government will need determination, cunning and luck.

It will also require continuing allied assistance. Douglas Hurd, Robin Cook and Menzies Campbell have argued that Britain and America should now announce that their troops will leave in a year's time. It is hard to conceive of a more dangerous and destabilising proposal. Such a deadline would give the insurgents every incentive to prepare for the day when they could assail the nascent and unprotected Iraqi security forces. It would also discourage many prudent Sunni moderates from co-operating with the Allawi government.

The three eminent defeatists were right to insist that the Western military presence is no substitute for a political process. That is true in Iraq, as it was in Bosnia. But the military presence can encourage the locals to believe that it would be safe to engage in cautious dealings with hereditary foes, because the foreign forces will ensure that concessions do not lead to throat-cutting.

The eminent defeatists' group is also ignoring the most crucial factor of all. "We must tell the Iraqi leadership," they write, without seeming to realise that the Iraqi leadership will eventually tell us what to do. UN mandate or no, it would be impossible for the US and Britain to stay in Iraq if Mr Allawi asked us to leave.

"We need to ensure that Iraqis do not perceive their new government as being as closely identified to the occupying forces as the ... interim administrations were." There, one can agree with the EDG, but the point will already have occurred to Mr Allawi. He knows that he will not really be the head of the Iraqi government until the allies have left. He has every incentive to hasten that day and to remind his fellow Iraqis of his ability to do so.

Not too soon, however. Iraq is still menaced by chaos. But premature withdrawal guarantees chaos. That would betray the hopes of the brave Iraqis who voted yesterday, and some who died voting. We have made heavy sacrifices for their freedom. So have they.

The new Iraqi democracy, assuming that it does survive, will be imperfect. In that, it will hardly be unique. The new American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, knows all about imperfect democracies. Nearly a century after "government by the people, of the people, for the people", her people were still slaves. A hundred years after that, they were still subject to segregation. From her own experience, she knows that democratic ideals do not guarantee democratic practice. But she also knows that ideals can ultimately shape reality.

They are also reshaping the Middle East. Without the victory over Saddam, there would be no democracy in Afghanistan. There would be no hope of an Israeli/Palestinian peace accord. Libya would still be an enemy of the West. Who knows what further beneficent influences may emerge if Iraqi democracy works?

As he does far more often than he is given credit for, George Bush found the right words yesterday. "This is a great day for democracy," he said. He was right.