The Spectator

Baghdad spring

If this was an ‘occupier’s election’ it was one heartily endorsed by the Iraqi people

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For a negative interpretation of events in which the rest of the world can see nothing but good, the Guardian’s editorial pages are much to be recommended. Sure enough, on Monday, while millions of Iraqis were waking up with stained fingers to the first day of democratic Iraq and enjoying generous tributes to their courage from sometime opponents of war such as Vladimir Putin, Salim Lone, the former director for the UN’s special mission in Iraq, was whining in the Guardian about the unfairness of it all. The risks taken by voters, candidates and election organisers, he declared, were in vain: ‘A high turnout does not change the fact that this is an illegitimate, occupier’s election.’ The ballot papers, he complained, were too complicated; individual candidates had been too frightened to identify themselves; the Sunnis, who have been leading the insurgency, were under-represented; but above all the Americans had committed the sin of ignoring the UN and working out the details of the poll in direct consultation with representatives of the people.

It takes some blinkered mentality to write those words on a day when millions defied death threats to turn up at the polls. If this was an ‘occupier’s election’ it was one heartily endorsed by the Iraqi people, on a scale which should humble the apathetic voters of the Western world. In the town of Kirkuk the turnout was 88 per cent: what chance of achieving that in Beckenham South, even without posters plastered around the town promising ‘You vote, you die’? Notwithstanding the death threats, it should not be surprising that the Iraqis turned up at the polls in such numbers. Who, given the chance to make a stand against the bombers and gunslingers who have been attempting to destabilise one’s country, would not want to try to take it? By turning up at the polls, Iraqis proved to the world that they are ordinary human beings rather than the wild-eyed religious zealots it often seems opponents of the war in Iraq would like them to be.

Of course, the Americans have made grave mistakes in their occupation of Iraq. Following an invasion fought with clinical efficiency, there seemed to be no coherent plan for the reconstruction of the country. It is an indictment of some of the decisions made that, according to some estimates, 17,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. The treatment of some prisoners was a disgrace. The stated reason for going to war in the first place — that Saddam Hussein possessed large arsenals of weapons of mass destruction — has turned out to be a deceit, for which Mr Blair has failed so far to atone.

But no matter how it got there, Iraq is now a sovereign nation with a democratically elected assembly: a novelty in the Arab world. Moreover, the coalition forces are now in Iraq by invitation and nothing more. Of course Sunday’s vote was an ‘occupier’s election’ in the sense that the organisation of it was overseen by the Americans; but then so too were the first elections in postwar West Germany and in independent India. Who moans that they were illegitimate?

The Iraqi elections — which like last October’s first elections in Afghanistan failed to provoke the predicted bloodbath — are proof of President Bush’s belief that the most despotic of nations can and will embrace democracy if they are given the chance. And it is a chance which the Iraqis would not have been given had the UN been allowed to dictate the world’s dealings with Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqis have paid a heavy price for their liberation, a price many of them, given the chance, might frankly have elected not to pay. Coalition troops have been killed, and will continue to be killed, even if the casualty figures are nothing like those of the Vietnam war. As Andrew Gilligan reports, the insurgency will not easily die, and is causing chaos in the lives of Iraqi civilians. It would be wrong for the pro-war party to crow about any unalloyed triumph.

But it would be equally wrong for the anti-war party to speak of an unmitigated disaster or to hope (as many of them secretly do) for things to get worse, on the grounds that this would be a vindication of their visceral dislike of Bush, the neocons and indeed of modern America. The elections have gone surprisingly well. The heartbeat of hope is detectable in Baghdad, and it is beating more strongly since Sunday.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent construction of a democracy in Iraq marks a welcome departure from the laissez-faire approach to the world’s dictators. After Saddam, no brutal dictator can sleep safely in his presidential palace knowing that, so long as he doesn’t physically attack a Western nation, the world will leave him be in the misguided belief that Third World nations are destined forever to be governed by autocrats.

By turning out in such numbers, the Iraqis did not prove that they like the Americans, but they did prove that the will of the people to govern themselves is as strong in Baghdad as it is in London and Washington. It is a lesson for the appeasers of dictators everywhere.