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In Arab World, Iraqi Vote Draws Mixed Reactions (WASHINGTON POST) By Scott Wilson AMMAN, Jordan 02/01/05 Page A12)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A51954-2005Jan31.html WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
AMMAN, Jordan, Jan. 31 -- The spectacle of celebration and violence that marked election day in Iraq brought mixed reactions from an interested Arab audience Monday, with newspapers and satellite television channels finding reasons to celebrate and condemn the country´s first free vote in decades.

For even the most skeptical columnists, the images of dancing Iraqis, ink-stained index fingers held jubilantly overhead, were powerful evidence that a suffering nation may have taken a decisive leap forward. Nonetheless, even the most hopeful among the pundits also cautioned that a single day, no matter how inspired, did not mean that Iraq´s determined insurgency or the stark sectarian lines that divide its people would disappear.

"Was it all worth it -- the elections, the effort, the financial cost, the human sacrifice?" asked the lead editorial in the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper published in Beirut. "Ultimately, it is the Iraqis who have the greatest stake in their country and not, whatever its economic and strategic interests, the United States. Thus, if Sunday´s sacrifices are to be judged by history as warranted, the democratic process -- and whatever it legitimately brings -- must be taken beyond the first step."

The pictures of Iraqis voting, including tens of thousands of expatriates casting ballots in countries where elections are not allowed, appeared to puzzle many Arab governments that had been predicting a bloodier election day.

The interim Iraqi government announced that one Arab head of state -- Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan of the United Arab Emirates -- called Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to congratulate him on the elections. But many Arab leaders were mute or urged election winners to ensure that power would be shared fairly among religious and ethnic groups.

Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said in a statement that the elections were "an important step toward launching an effective political process in which all components of the Iraqi people can participate."

In recent weeks, many newspapers across the Middle East recommended that voting be delayed until several provinces in northern and central Iraq, the Sunni Muslim heartland, be wrested from insurgents determined to thwart the elections. It was possible Monday to detect a note of unpleasant surprise in those papers, some of them owned by autocratic governments that the Bush administration has urged to adopt democratic reforms.

Among the most skeptical media outlets were those in countries led by Sunni Muslim royal families or military-backed presidents, who have warned that Iraq´s elections would usher in a Shiite-led government and perhaps inspire Shiite uprisings across the region.

In Jordan, the newspaper Ad Dustour, owned partly by the government, used as its banner headline: "Iraq´s Vote Passes with 56 Dead." Inside, columnist Yasser Zaatra praised Iraq´s Sunnis for opting out of Sunday´s vote, although many did cast ballots in even the most dangerous provinces.

"If not for the Arab Sunnis who boycotted the Iraqi election, we would have nothing left to say but, ´The occupier has won,´ " Zaatra wrote. "There is no elected government that will tell the occupier, ´Kindly leave because we want to enjoy our country and its riches in our own way.´ "

Jordan´s independent Al Ghad newspaper made the Iraqi election results the second story on its front page, leading instead with news that King Abdullah and Queen Rania were the proud parents of a new boy, Prince Hashem.

Abdullah, a Sunni, has warned the Bush administration that a Shiite- led government in Iraq could destabilize the region.

In an interview Monday with CNN, however, he offered a more optimistic note. "I think this is a thing that will set a good tone for the Middle East, and I am optimistic." The king, who recently announced plans to allow elections for local office, added: "People are waking up. [Arab] leaders understand that they have to push reform forward, and I don´t think there is any looking back."

In Egypt, the government of President Hosni Mubarak welcomed the conclusion of the elections, but with the "hope that this step would lead to a political process that includes the various sectors of society," according to a front-page article in the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper. Mubarak has demanded that Iraq´s Sunnis, who account for roughly 20 percent of the population, be ensured a share of power.

In Saudi Arabia, now gearing up for its first experiment in free voting since 1963 with limited local elections, some news media outlets celebrated the elections and the Iraqis who braved insurgent attacks to cast ballots.

"This is what we have been waiting for -- not appointments, but an election by and for the people, in which the people choose," the English-language Arab News, owned by a Saudi prince, wrote in its lead editorial. "It is what so many all over the world have died for, and that should not be forgotten."

The two most prominent Arab satellite television channels, however, analyzed the elections far differently.

Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, focused mainly on the confusion surrounding voter turnout, the low Sunni participation and the violence, frequently airing images from Sunday´s deadly suicide car bombings. One video clip showed ballots scattered on the ground, covered in blood. "That is not ink," the reporter intoned.

Al-Arabiya, based in Dubai, chose a more sober approach, showcasing ebullient Iraqis and employing several analysts who were generally optimistic in discussing the next steps for Iraq politically. One report featured an Iraqi woman who gave birth Monday to a girl: She named the child Intikhabat -- "elections" in Arabic.

But other Arabs found little to celebrate. Salah Rabia, a gynecologist in Luxor, Egypt, called the elections "a scandal" for what they may bring to Iraq and the region.

The Shiites "can never rule in Iraq," he said. "It´s unnatural."

Abbas Rabia, a fellow physician and relative, predicted that "there will be bloodshed."

"The United States is trying to create leaders who will bow to them," he said. Correspondent Daniel Williams in Luxor contributed to this report. (© 2005 The Washington Post Company 02/01/05)

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