The New York Times
June 22, 2003

America Brings Democracy: Censor Now, Vote Later


NAJAF, Iraq _ As each restaurant worker declared whom he would support in an election for mayor in this city, Dhirgham Najem, a meek, skinny 23-year-old busboy quietly waited for his turn and then shocked everyone in the room.

"I will run for mayor," he proclaimed. "Because we have freedom."

His comment is part of what one American military officer stationed here called the "beautiful thing" that is happening in Najaf. Even as American soldiers run into ambushes in Baghdad and central Iraq, this more stable corner in the country's south is alive with complaint, debate, opinion and dreams that were scarcely imaginable before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Everyone here, it seems, has something to say. And all, it seems, are eager to tell visitors, particularly Americans, what they think. No one is quite sure what "demokratiya" _ democracy in Arabic _ is. But the word is constantly invoked as an almost utopian ideal.

Just as neoconservatives in Washington had hoped, the concept of demokratiya has taken hold in the Iraqi imagination, raising the possibility that it will inspire change throughout the Middle East.

But there is a problem: The United States isn't perceived as a cultivator of democracy here. It is seen as a military occupier that supports democracy and free speech when they serve its interest, but suppresses both when they don't.

Last week, many Iraqis here, and some Americans, were baffled by the decision of L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq, to cancel what would have been Iraq's first general election for mayor here.

A few days later, American marines arrested members of a political party. American military officials had decided articles they wrote in their newspaper praising attacks on United States servicemen violated an edict from Mr. Bremer that banned "incitement" of violence against American forces, political groups, minorities and women.

At first glance, even some Americans here saw both moves as, well, un-American. "We should've had this election," said the American military officer here, who asked not to be named. "What are we telling them?"

But the decisions here in Iraq are not easy. Is instant democracy the right thing, for example, when the contestants aren't starting from a level playing field, and many of them don't even know the rules?

Some argue that holding a vote now would favor a handful of groups in Iraq _ well-organized religious fundamentalists, politically sophisticated exile groups and anyone with cash to burn. TAmerica Brings Democracy Censo.ems he voice of average Iraqis would be lost, that argument goes.

Worst of all, renamed remnants of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party could win legitimacy and power in Sunni-dominated parts of central Iraq. Mr. Hussein is a member of the country's Sunni Muslim minority, which has ruled Iraq ever since the country was created nearly a century ago. Now the Sunnis, who make up only 20 percent of Iraq's population, have lost the privileged position they had for decades, particularly those close to Mr. Hussein.

There are, indeed, examples of recent post-conflict elections gone wrong. In Bosnia, elections held soon after the war there allowed nationalist parties to gain parliamentary seats that they used to thwart the implementation of the Dayton peace accord. In nearly every election since then, Bosnia's electorate has returned nationalists to office despite overt signals from American officials that they favored moderates.

In a still unstable country brimming with people eager for payback after three decades of authoritarian rule, quick elections could also set off violence.

Even the question of censorship is more complicated than it might at first appear, at least in the view of Americans who defend the practice. As a liberator and now occupier, the United States has the right to defend its interests, they say, particularly in light of the rising number of attacks against American soldiers. Is giving a sermon or writing an article that glorifies such attacks free speech or enemy action?

[Note: This is only the first half of the article.]

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