It is time to start trusting the Iraqi people

Iraq is insecure because its current government is disputed by a significant minority

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For anybody who believes in democracy in Iraq, this is a beautiful week. That might seem like a perverse statement, after 20 people (most of them Iraqi civilians) were murdered at the US headquarters in Baghdad by the anti-democratic jihadist resistance. But look at the bigger picture: 100,000 Iraqis peacefully rallied for immediate democratic elections, rather than the alternative US plan, in the centre of Baghdad on Monday. Muhammed Masser, a typical protester, said, "All people everywhere have the right to choose their democratic representatives. The world has become so small. Nobody should be left out of democracy, ever."

For anybody who believes in democracy in Iraq, this is a beautiful week. That might seem like a perverse statement, after 20 people (most of them Iraqi civilians) were murdered at the US headquarters in Baghdad by the anti-democratic jihadist resistance. But look at the bigger picture: 100,000 Iraqis peacefully rallied for immediate democratic elections, rather than the alternative US plan, in the centre of Baghdad on Monday. Muhammed Masser, a typical protester, said, "All people everywhere have the right to choose their democratic representatives. The world has become so small. Nobody should be left out of democracy, ever."

One of the most common arguments against the recent war was that it is hopelessly idealistic to think Iraqis would be capable of - or even want - democracy. I've lost count of the number of people who sniggered at talk of Arab democracy and blithely asserted that once they were freed, Iraqis would opt for a fanatical Mullahocracy.

These varieties of Robert Kilroy-Silkism - Arabs are hand-chopping barbarians who secretly love the lash - have been left looking pretty stupid. The Iraqi opinion polls have shown huge majorities in favour of democracy, with fewer than 5 per cent longing for rule by theocrats or the return of Saddam. Some cynics interpret the fact that it is the Ayatollah Sistani spearheading the calls for an election as evidence of incipient theocracy. They see Sistani and think Khomeini. I'm no fan of Mullahs and Sistani could yet turn out to be a theocrat, but all the evidence so far is that he is not seeking political power for himself, and his followers want regular elections.

The more difficult question was always whether the Americans would help secure a transition to democracy, or would try to install a democratic-sounding puppet. Some of the harbingers are good. Northern Iraq has become an impressive democracy since 1991 under US military protection. Since 11 September, the US has begun to realise that it will pay a massive and painful price for having inculcated a Middle Eastern culture of terror and fanaticism. Yet the long Cold War history of US suppression of democracy in the region - often backing monstrous dictators, including Saddam at his worst - reminds us of the horrific strands of US foreign policy, and suggests that we should be sceptical.

The US plan is to select local caucuses who will then appoint a provisional government. This government will then draft a constitution, which will be ratified (or not) by a referendum within one year. Direct elections would be held under the new constitution. This isn't necessarily a bad strategy: in Japan after the Second World War, a selected group of Japanese figures wrote a new constitution under close US supervision, and it crafted an extraordinarily successful, democratic nation state.

Yet it is very hard to make an argument against the Iraqi protesters who cry, "Yes, yes to elections, no, no, to appointments." Sistani wants the drafters of the constitution to be chosen by the Iraqi people. He is right. Some fear that if the constitution is not drafted under fairly close American guardianship, it will not put in place proper protections for women and Iraq's minority Sunnis and Kurds. Yet the Shia themselves want a decent and federal Iraq with a stable constitution. Besides, if the constitution is not drafted by an elected body, then there is a risk the Shia will turn against it altogether, and descent into chaos becomes possible.

It is disingenuous of the Americans to claim that an electoral register cannot be created in time. The register for the distribution of rations to Iraqis, mixed with health and identity cards, would provide a fairly robust census, as Dominic D'Angelo, British spokesman for the UK-led zone in Basra, confirmed this week.

It is doubly disingenuous to claim that problems with security make elections difficult. The security situation and the democratic legitimacy of Iraq's government are not two separate issues. Iraq is insecure because its current government is disputed by a significant minority - around a quarter, according to opinion polls - of the Iraqi population. Once Iraq has free, open elections, the wavering quarter of Iraqis will be whittled away to a far smaller minority, and Iraqis will be far more inclined to report the remaining 'resistance' members to the authorities.

However, I do not feel comfortable talking about Iraqi democracy without adding a substantial caveat. For those on the left, it is worrying that any Iraqi democracy will be bounded within IMF neoliberal rules. The precipitate privatisation of so many Iraqi assets has set strict limits for Iraqi democracy. Iraqis would have a very tough time if they decided to build a European-style social democracy, for example. Opposing this must be part of a wider global fight to free all developing countries from those suffocating constrictions.

It is time to start trusting the Iraqi people. It is their constitution, their security, and their country. We have a short time to persuade our own leaders of this, but the Western city centres that filled just a few months ago with protesters who claimed to be in solidarity with Iraqis are now empty. Will they fill again to call for real democracy in Iraq before the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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