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Syria Backs Iraqi Vote As Key Step to Stability - Expatriates Encouraged to Participate (WASHINGTON POST) By Scott Wilson DAMASCUS, Syria 01/29/05 Page A18)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A45593-2005Jan28.html WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Billboards urging Iraqis here to vote in their national elections Sunday loom over major intersections. Schools have become registration centers, their rows of tiny desks filled with Iraqis who have sought refuge here from war. Radio and television ads urge the exiles to vote.

Syria´s support for the elections next door may seem odd, given the government´s opposition to the U.S. involvement in Iraq. But President Bashar Assad has a growing stake in the elections´ success, Western diplomats and Syrian officials say, as the violence and political ferment in Iraq bleed across the border.

"We consider these elections a key step toward establishing stability there," said Syria´s information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah. "The instability in the region causes instability elsewhere, including Syria. It is like a communicative disease."

Autocratic governments in Cairo, Riyadh and many other Middle Eastern capitals are watching events leading to Sunday´s elections, marked by insurgent attacks, with a mix of trepidation, hope and satisfaction. But few of them have as large a stake in the outcome as Syria, a prime target of President Bush´s plan to foster democratic change in the region.

Assad, who took office 4 1/2 years ago after the death of his father, is trying to balance the potential boost that the Iraqi elections could give to his country´s fledgling democratic movement with the possibility that a successful vote would stem the flow of Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria.

"If the Shiite majority wins in Iraq and yet does not become a tyranny, that will be decisive here," said Sadiq Azm, a Syrian writer and reformer. "If the Americans come out with some results and Iraq becomes a stable democratic republic, it could give Syrian civil society new arguments for change."

Since 1970, when Hafez Assad took power in a coup, Syria has been ruled by the Arab nationalist Baath Party, backed by the military. Under the younger Assad, the administration, controlled by an Alawite Muslim minority, is adopting modest economic reforms that some democracy advocates say could serve as precursors to political change.

Though other political parties are officially illegal, the government allows them to operate within strict guidelines. Many of them draw from professional associations and form an opposition bloc in Syria´s 250-seat parliament, a majority of which is reserved for the Baath Party.

Azm said Syria´s reform movement -- which comprises independent groups of human-rights advocates, Sunni business leaders and even some Baath Party radicals -- had drawn more lessons from Turkey than from the U.S. experiment in Iraq. In the weeks before the war, Turkey´s parliament voted against allowing U.S. forces to enter northern Iraq from Turkish territory. Azm said Syria´s reform advocates were amazed by the muted U.S. response to what was considered a major strategic setback.

"They saw that Turkey was bulletproof because it had an elected government," Azm said. "This made quite a mark."

Since becoming president, Bashar Assad has been trying to reduce the Baath Party´s influence over some social-service ministries and the mostly state-run economy. But allies say he is facing stiff resistance from holdovers from his father´s government, despite mounting domestic pressure to change.

A majority of Syria´s population is under 20 years old, and 300,000 people enter the labor force each year -- far more than its economy can absorb. Assad has been taking small steps to expand the private sector, but that has given more clout to reformers among Syria´s Sunni Muslim majority, the key players in the private sector.

"The rule of the game has changed. If you want to succeed, you no longer need a role in or support from the government," said Rateb Shallah, the president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce. "Credit must go to our leadership for starting this process, even though we feel the present rate of change is still very slow."

Shallah, 67, is a wealthy, Oxford-educated Sunni whose family owns businesses ranging from canned-food factories to car dealerships. His father founded the federation of chambers 40 years ago.

Last year, faced with complaints from younger chamber members that his post appeared to be hereditary, Shallah agreed to hold elections. He won. But he says Iraq´s elections, while vital for establishing stability in that country, should not dictate the pace of political change in Syria.

"If we were to introduce a purely democratic government, you would see problems because of the divergent views of the people," Shallah said. "I believe reform would move much slower if the democracy the U.S. wants were put in place tomorrow."

Several members of parliament and lawyers involved in Syrian politics said the government was moving to eliminate the Baath Party´s guaranteed majority in the legislature by the end of the year. The change would allow the broader participation many Syrians have called for, they said, while stopping short of elections.

"I´m afraid that in open elections now, the Islamic movement would win not only in Syria but across the region," said Adib Dahdouh, a Christian lawyer who works with the opposition bloc in parliament.

The Syrian government has long refused to condemn the Iraqi insurgency now working to thwart the vote. Despite that, and the uncertainty over what Iraq´s elections might bring, the Syrian government has been helping arrange voting procedures for Iraqis in Syria.

The Foreign Ministry agreed Jan. 2 to allow the International Organization for Migration, a nongovernmental agency overseeing voting by the estimated 2 million eligible Iraqis outside the country, to establish a mission here. It was the last of 14 countries with sizable Iraqi populations to do so. Western diplomats say the ministry may have agreed to the arrangement because of the problems Iraq´s instability is causing here, as a growing number of Iraqis settle at least temporarily in Syria.

"They are waiting now for elections," said Bishop Antoine Audo of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Aleppo, 185 miles north of Damascus, where some 15,000 Iraqi Christians have fled since the war started. "If there is some stability, the arrivals will stop. If not, they will continue."

The office has set up 10 voter-registration centers in Damascus capable of handling 200,000 Iraqis. But only 14,245 Iraqis signed up during the eight-day registration period, and agency officials said many more were not aware it was even an option.

"We reject all of this," an Iraqi man shouted during a recent news conference at a registration center in the Damascus neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, where thousands of Iraqis have settled. "Elections should never be held under the U.S. flag."

Nearby, however, a school teacher from the southern Iraqi city of Basra eagerly signed up to vote. Amira, 49, who spoke on condition she not give her last name, said she fled Iraq 18 months ago and had not seen her son since. On this chilly day, though, she beamed from inside her black cloak at the prospect of casting a ballot.

"One stone out of many will build a wall," she said. (© 2005 The Washington Post Company 01/29/05)


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