Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Can George W. Bush's Iraq strategy really be working after all?

By Simon Tisdall  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

It would not do to get too excited. But April 9's peaceful demonstration in Baghdad by thousands of supporters of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was one of several recent signs that US- driven attempts to cultivate democracy in Iraq may be approaching a fork in the road, if not quite a turning point.

Sadr's Mahdi army spent much of last year fighting American occupation troops. Even after an October truce, the movement did not renounce the use of force and was distinctly ambivalent about January's election.

But the April 9 demonstration, the largest that postwar Iraq has seen, suggested that the Sadrists' strategy has definitively changed. Instead of a return to shootings and bombings, they said they would be protesting and lobbying the new Shia-led government as part of a non-violent campaign to secure a US and British withdrawal.

This belated recourse to democratic means by one of Iraq's most formidable militias is in some ways more impressive than the election itself. Predictably, the big poll winners were the moderate Shia parties and the Kurds. The process failed to draw in the Sunni minority, let alone the various hardline Islamist factions.

But progress is being made in involving Sunni representatives in the government and in the writing of a new constitution. And as people such as Sadr focus on conventional politics, the momentum behind the insurgency finally seems to be slowing.

Although US commanders say they still face at least 12,000 fighters, daily attacks on allied forces have dropped by more than two-thirds since the pre-election period. The Iraqi security forces are now bearing the brunt, and are said to be responding with increased competence.

Speaking in Baghdad on Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested with possibly greater justification than in the past that democratic habits were taking root.

"The people who made the mistake of sitting [the elections] out now understand it was a mistake and are leaning forward to get in," he said.

But if things are looking up in Iraq, at least from an American point of view, the same cannot confidently be said of US President George W. Bush's wider campaign to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

Bush has made a big song and dance about freeing Lebanon from the Syrian yoke. But the main result so far of the mass demonstrations and counter-demonstrations that briefly turned Beirut into Kiev-on-the-Med is a political vacuum laced with fears of new civil strife.

Parliamentary elections due next month look likely to be postponed for several months -- hardly the sort of democratic advance Bush is promoting.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's proposal to hold the first ever multi-candidate presidential election this year was greeted in Washington as a further sign of a democratic "ripple of change" spreading across the region. But most Egyptians seem unimpressed, viewing the exercise as cosmetic.

The overall parlous lack of genuine participatory democracy in the region is the subject of the third Arab Human Development report last week by the UN Development Program.

"The situation of freedom and good governance in the Arab world ranges from deficient to seriously deficient," the report, written by Arab scholars and intellectuals, said. "Despite sporadic improvements in human rights in some Arab countries, the picture is grave and deteriorating."

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