December 15, 2005
Breeding Freedom in the Middle East

By Peter Brookes

Tomorrow's historic Iraqi election is about a heck of a lot more than choosing 275 new parliamentarians for Iraq's first full-term, post-Saddam government. It's equally key to fomenting change in next-door Iran and Syria, breaking al Qaeda and serving notice on other Middle Eastern despots that their days are numbered.

This will be no ordinary day at the polling booth. Iraqi voting will — once again — shake the pillars of Middle Eastern terror and tyranny like a political earthquake, creating (democratic) nightmares for those who oppose the march of freedom across the region.

* Iran's vigorous support for the Iraqi insurgency tells us that the mullahs' regime is probably the one most troubled by Iraq's democratic political revolution.

Tehran's rulers — both the senior mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — are under intense political pressure both at home and abroad.

Iran is increasingly isolated internationally because of its dogged pursuit of an indigenous nuclear (weapons) capability, as well as Ahmadinejad's increasingly provocative anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic tirades and historical distortions.

Having freedom and democracy right next door in Iraq will only turbo-charge the pressure on the regime from Iran's youthful population (60 percent under age 30), which is bristling under the mullahs' heavy-handed rule and clamoring for greater political/social/economic freedoms.

* Syria, another ardent insurgency co-conspirator, can't be too happy about the Iraqi elections, either. The regime is already in deep trouble over a U.N. investigation's strong suggestion that it's behind the February killing of popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.

And now many are pointing the finger at Damascus over this week's assassination of the prominent Lebanese parliamentarian and journalist, Gibran Tueni — the fourth brutal murder of a prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese figure since Syria's withdrawal this spring.

The success of tomorrow's elections will surround Syria with democratic states — Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Iraq — leaving Damascus as the odd man out in that "free" corner of the Middle East. How long before the Syrian people become restless, asking, "Why not us?"

* Al Qaeda is already in a tenuous state in the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden hasn't been heard from in months. Wherever he's hiding, it's unlikely he's directly in charge of any aspect of the terrorist group's worldwide operations. He's become a mere figurehead.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda's wanton slaughter — shedding innocent Muslim blood from one end of the world to the other — is disenchanting moderate Muslim masses, alienating potential jihadists, discouraging new recruits and undermining its financial base.

The carnage — including last month's horrific wedding party bombing in Jordan, the hostage-taking of Arab diplomats in Baghdad and the slaughter of Iraqi women and children — has brought real backlash against al Qaeda and extremism. Al Qaeda is slowly, but surely, cutting its own throat in the Muslim world.

Moreover, al Qaeda sees democracy as the most dangerous threat to its maniacal drive for world domination. The success of pluralism in Iraq means another nail in the coffin for its ghastly dreams.

Not surprising, an Internet statement from five Islamic militant groups in Iraq — including Abu Musab al Zarqawi's al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers — called tomorrow's election a "satanic project," promising to continue their bloody resistance to the Iraqi's political will.

Without question, 10 to 12 million Iraqis going to 6,230 polling places won't go unnoticed across the Middle East. More than 100 million satellite dishes will flicker images of Iraqi voters into homes, businesses and restaurants, reaching countless viewers.

Oppressive rulers also won't be able to ignore the fact that in just 32 months, Iraq deposed Saddam Hussein, held free, interim elections (8 million voting), drafted/approved a democratic constitution in a nationwide referendum (10 million voting) and elected a new government.

These elections — and Iraq's incredible political evolution — can't help but have profound effect on people across the Muslim world, especially those yearning for greater political freedom in repressive states.

Yes, tomorrow's voting puts Iraq on a path to a brighter future. But, equally important, it puts al Qaeda, Iran, Syria and other despots on notice that the Middle Eastern democracy train has left the station — and there's no turning it back.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. This article originally appeared in The New York Post.

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