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Democracy can bring peace to the Middle East (TELEGRAPH UK EDITORIAL) 01/29/05)Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2005/01/29/dl2901.xml&sSheet=/opinion/2005/01/29/ixopinion.html DAILY TELEGRAPH DAILY TELEGRAPH Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Democracy is a rare and fragile plant in the Arab world. Yet by tomorrow night, two such exercises will have taken place within the space of three weeks. The first was on January 9, when the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip elected Mahmoud Abbas as their president. The second, to choose a national assembly in Iraq which will draft a constitution, began yesterday among expatriates in 14 countries, including Britain, and will conclude on Sunday.

By championing democracy as a factor for peace, George W Bush has maintained pressure on those who otherwise might soon have reverted to authoritarian ways. In the Palestinians´ case, his policy shows signs of bearing fruit. Mr Abbas has deployed security forces in Gaza to prevent rocket attacks on Israel. His prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, has issued a ban on weapons in the Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. The Israeli army has responded by suspending "offensive operations" in Gaza. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, has expressed himself very satisfied with Mr Abbas´s steps to end the four-year intifada. His foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, has said that Israel´s response to Palestinian attacks will be "totally different" to what they were under Yasser Arafat, if it is felt that his successor is making a real effort for peace. Add to these indications of detente the imminence of a visit by Condoleezza Rice, the new American Secretary of State, and at last there seems a serious chance of embarking on the "road map" to a permanent settlement, drawn up by America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations in 2003.

With Iraq, the outlook is much murkier. In four of the 18 provinces, where 40 per cent of the population live, the Americans have identified violence as a major threat to voter turnout. They are Baghdad; Anbar, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah; Salahadin, which includes Samarra and Baquba; and Nineveh, whose capital, Mosul, is the second largest Iraqi town. Terrorists have vowed "to wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters´ blood" and have described polling stations as "centres of atheism and vice". Against this must be set the eagerness of the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the population, to end decades of Sunni domination and, to a lesser extent, of the Kurds to entrench the autonomy they have enjoyed since 1991. And even if the participation of the Sunnis is low, this will not prevent their taking part in the drafting of the constitution, or indeed filling ministerial portfolios. "Ultimately, this whole thing comes down not to electoral politics, but to backroom politics" was how one American commentator put it.

This, then, is a highly unusual election. But it offers the chance of self-representation to a people subjected for decades to totalitarian rule. Therein may lie the key to peace. (© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004. 01/29/05)

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