Yet again, the US appears to be facing a setback in Iraq. The cloud in the silver lining of the Iraqi elections seems to be the victory of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition dominated by Shi'a Islamist parties. To make matters worse, many parties in the UIA are portrayed as Iranian puppets. The UIA's candidate for the post of prime minister, Ibrahim Ja'afari, is a man with decidedly fundamentalist views who spent many years in exile in Iran. Iraqi Arabs voted not for liberals but for Islamists, while the minorities opted for nationalists. It looks like "blowback" all over again.
But to bewail the victory of the UIA as a triumph for Islamic fundamentalism and Iranian influence, to eulogize an Iraqi liberalism that never was, is to misunderstand the US role in Iraqi domestic politics. By removing the strategic threat of Saddam Hussein, the US gave Iraqis the right of self-determination that the dictator and his Ba'ath Party had denied them. That right means allowing Iraqis to elect Shi'a Islamists, not the US picking winners.
To be sure, religious parties that wish to make women the chattels of men, that regard democracy as the tool of the majority to dictate to the rest, are not our cup of tea. Nobody should delude themselves as to the religious parties' commitment to democracy.
Yet the decision of these unpalatable parties with dubious credentials to enter the political process is not a setback but a success. What is important is that these parties feel they have no choice but to engage in peaceful politics. After all, just a year ago Dr. Ja'afari was condemning the very interim constitution that today allows him to bid for the post of prime minister. The Shi'a Islamists have had to make compromises, "setbacks", in the terminology of some.
The most striking change has come from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest single party in the UIA. An avowedly religious party, SCIRI was based in Iran for over 20 years and is still in receipt of Iranian funds. SCIRI refused to have any public dealings with the US until August 2002, although there had been some discrete meetings in Kuwait. Shortly after the fall of Saddam, SCIRI reaffirmed its hostility to the US. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, then the deputy leader of SCIRI, demanded on April 23, 2003 that the US leave, stating that "The American presence is unacceptable and there's no justification for it staying in Iraq."
Nearly two years later, and following the assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim's elder brother, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim in August 2003, SCIRI's stance is notably different. SCIRI fudged the UIA's electoral platform that called for a negotiated timetable for the US-led coalition to withdraw. One of Hakim's aides, Haitham Al Husseini, told The New York Times on January 2, 2005 that "we all see the necessity of American troops for the time being," a conveniently indefinable length of time.
Some will argue that if the Shi'a Islamists have been forced to backtrack, then so should the US, that it should be "cautious" about the prospects for democracy in a place like Iraq. Such voices of caution have, however, overstated US aims in Iraq.
The US is not in Iraq to construct a perfect democracy nor to impose an American political template. Democracy, unlike dictatorship, has no single mold. Instead, it comes in more than 57 varieties with hundreds of potential electoral systems.
Iraqi federalism -- the desire of most Iraqi Kurds and increasing numbers of Shi'a Arabs in the economically disadvantaged south of Iraq -- is unlikely to resemble anything out of the Federalist Papers. Rather, a federal Iraq will have a strong ethnic and religious flavor.
There is therefore no purpose to bemoaning the "sectarian attachments" of Iraqis, nor their ethnic identities. Iraqis suffered for these identities and this torment was part of the case for war. It seems odd, and strangely cruel, to ask Iraqis to forget what they bled for. We have no right to ask Iraqis to cast off the very ethnic and religious heritage that Iraqis want participatory politics to preserve for no other reason than that it does not fit our paradigm of democracy. Intellectuals may wish to live in a pure republic where ethnicity and religion do not matter, but most Iraqis do not.
So what can the US legitimately do? By dint of liberating Iraq, the US can demand that Iraqi politics are conducted peacefully; basic individual liberties be respected; there be regular elections, which hold politicians accountable and that a religious dictatorship not replace Saddam's Arab nationalist tyranny. By making politics pay, and violence fail, the US can continue to successfully encourage most Iraqis to believe that their fate will be decided with elections not coups.
The author is resident fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.