The Magazine

Meanwhile, Back in Baghdad

From the March 21, 2005 issue: Life in sovereign Iraq.

Mar 21, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 25 • By DAN SENOR
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* Women--One of the Iraqi interim constitution's mandates resulted in every fourth position on each political party list being held by a woman. This produced female representation in the National Assembly at a higher rate than in the U.S. Congress.

Such newfound political rights are not as easily reversible as Western skeptics claim. A political constituency is being created, which was exactly the intent of the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition when they made this constitutional stipulation. Once women get comfortable with political power, it's not easy for Islamists to take it away without risk of revolt.

The example being set by Iraqis on women's rights goes beyond politics to myriad new women's rights organizations and to women's visibility in the press corps. Indeed, there is nothing more revolutionary than an Islamist politician being grilled by an abayah-clad female Iraqi reporter under the bright lights of pan-Arab television cameras broadcasting to the entire region.

* Arab nationalism--"What this election told us is that Arab nationalism is dead in Iraq," one Iraqi leader proudly proclaimed to me. If there's any doubt, watch Iraqis select a Kurd as their next president--the first time a member of a non-Arab minority will become the ceremonial head of an Arab country, in a part of the world not known for its respect for ethnic minority rights.

Even Iraqis' lack of interest in the "Zionist entity" is telling. This is not to say that Iraqis are supportive of Israel or unsympathetic to the Palestinians. It's just that they don't share the obsession with Israel that consumes some others in the region. The Iraqi political parties that ran on a Nasserite pan-Arab agenda performed dismally.

At Baghdad International Airport, the Iraqi employee of Royal Jordanian Airlines asked me if my final destination from Baghdad was Amman. "No," I replied, "it's Tel Aviv." He didn't flinch, let alone launch into an anti-Israel tirade or deny me service. His only concern was how to tag my luggage so it could go all the way through. I told a Sunni Iraqi minister at the airport the same thing. He didn't miss a beat, either. Free Iraqis seem to be able to reconcile being agnostic about Israel with being sympathetic to the Palestinians. And, besides, Iraqis are preoccupied with jobs, electricity, and security, none of which they connect to the old pan-Arab scapegoat. Their outlet now is their own political process.

* Iraqi pride--When I was working in Iraq, I was struck by how proud Iraqis were of their country--surprising given that the modern state of Iraq has existed for only 85 years. Iraqis were quick to note that, until the Iran-Iraq war, they were always the first in the region, whether it was joining the U.N. or acquiring television sets. Saddam's tyranny destroyed much of that pride, and what was left was dealt a blow by the realization that it had taken a foreign power to liberate them.

Now, in the postelection euphoria, one begins to hear the word "first" again. Iraqis recognize the significance of the election not only for themselves, but for the region, which has renewed their sense of pride. As the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq put it when announcing the official results of the election: "Today Iraq is taking a new step toward . . . democracy." It was the first "true democratic experience" for Arab countries "and a model for the people of the area. . . . Today is the birth of a free Iraq . . . based on civilized democratic values."

On the day that Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated, an Iraqi leader predicted to me that the response from the Lebanese people would be dramatically different because of the example set by the Iraqi election.

Even in Iraq's Sunni-majority areas, many people already resent the Association of Islamic Scholars for urging a boycott of the election, and so forcing them off the democratic train just as it was leaving the station. There is little doubt that Sunnis will participate at much higher rates in the two elections scheduled for later this year.

Even after Saddam's capture, many Iraqis seemed unable to fully believe that their country would not revert to tyranny, the only political reality most had ever known. Now, since the elections, Iraqis seem for the first time to be taking ownership of their country. They are proud, and determined not to let it go.

Dan Senor was chief spokesman and senior adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad from April 2003 through June 2004. He recently returned to Iraq for the first time since the handover of sovereignty.