January 28, 2005 | The Chicago Sun Times

Iraqi Democracy Debuts in Pre-Election Debate

Last Sunday, when Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi aired his infamous declaration of holy war against democracy, six main Iraqi leaders performed Iraq's first televised electoral debate on Al Hurra TV. The contrast between naked jihadism — calling for the assassination of free choice — and campaigning with ideas and words, is flagrant. The war in Iraq was never as clear as today, and its stakes were never as high as Sunday.

The debate participants represented six major tickets. Iraq's future assembly will have 275 seats. More than 4,000 candidates have gathered in ''coalition lists'' representing ethnic, ideological and political interests — the single largest bloc of candidates in the modern history of the Middle East. The participants in the televised debate in Baghdad represented the leading ''blocs.'' In their opening remarks, they proclaimed their ''main principles of action.''

Jawad al Maliki, representing the Iraqi United Coalition, 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.

Ironically, al Maliki represents an Islamist Shiite party. He concluded that elections are the beginning of the solution — not the end of it. Hajim Husseini, representing the ticket ''Iraqiyun,'' or ''Iraqis,'' said most Sunni Arabs are not boycotting. They are under terrorist threat.

Dr. Adnan Pashaji, from the ''Gathering of Independent Democrats,'' admitted that he called for postponement of the elections for political reasons. He hoped he would convince more to participate. Dr. Ibrahim Saleh of the ''Kurdistani Alliance'' reminded viewers that elections are not happening in an ideal situation. ''We are facing international terrorism and the former regime 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,'' he said.

Qassim Daoud of the ''al Qai'ma al Iraqiya,'' or ''Iraqi ticket,'' said elections are needed to establish a national authority, and Hamid Majid Musa, representing ''People's Union,'' strongly expressed the aspirations of most leftist and liberal forces in Iraq, saying that having elections now is better than no elections.

The debate covered several subjects, particularly these areas:

*Security and the Iraqi war on terror: Maliki called for new security agencies and popular responsibility. Musa warned about infiltration. Husseini criticized the disbanding of the army. Salih, referring to the Kurdish experience since the 1990s, insisted on ''Iraqization'' of security: ''Coalition forces will stay as needed, but cities should be under Iraqi security,'' he said. All candidates vowed to uproot terrorism from Iraq.

*The form of the new government: Husseini said a historical mistake was made in 1921 that should be addressed in 2005. Salih said consensus is the basis of any system, and proposed a federal state. Musa insisted on a republican-democratic constitution. All agreed on the pluralist identity.

*Perhaps the greatest consensus was democracy: The six candidates pledged full support for liberties and human rights, but differed as to the means. Pashaji declared democracy as a part of the constitution, sort of an Iraqi ''first amendment.'' And along with Salih, he insisted that it should be defended by the people.

*Role of Islam: Most of the candidates admitted that Islam 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 but rejected a religious state. Pashaji reminded that the current legislation deals with the issue, while Daoud saw Islam as a religion of state.

*Baath Party: Husseini called the eradication of the Baath Party a mistake. Pashaji endorsed the dismantling of the Baath, but not the eradication of Arab identity. Salih distinguished between ''deBaath-ification'' as a purification of bureaucracy and eradication of the Baathists. He proposed a ''road map to absorb them.''

*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.

In a sum, Iraqi democracy is debuting with the politics of debates. Common grounds are laid out: National consensus, war on terrorism, democracy and inclusion. Cultural and spiritual issues will continue to divide parties. But two things are on track: Iraqis will win their elections, and the terrorists are now at war with Iraq's most important achievement: democracy.

– Walid Phares is the Middle Eastern/terrorism expert for FamilySecurityMatters.com and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.