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International Journalists Discuss Significance of Iraqi Election

Despite insurgent threats and calls for a boycott, turnout in the first democratic election in Iraq in nearly 50 years was strong. Iraqi journalists and Arab media analysts agree that the election to select 275 members of a transitional National Assembly that will draw up the country’s permanent constitution might have real significance not only for Iraq but also for its neighbors.

On VOA’s “International Press Club,” Hussein el-Sahi, a free-lance journalist with the Baghdad Newspaper, described Sunday’s election as “one of the most important steps in the modern history of Iraq” to build a civil society. Hiwa Osman, director of training at the Baghdad-based Institute of War and Peace reporting, was in Suleimaniyah in the Kurdish north on Sunday, where he said about 80 percent of registered voters turned out. But in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, he said, vote turnout was better than expected, although at a lower level than in the north or in the Shiite south.

The general consensus is that Arab Shiites will dominate the Iraqi National Assembly since they represent about 60 percent of the total population. But Hiwa Osman said the new government would need to bring in Sunni Arabs to help draft the constitution. Most important, he said, is that Sunday’s election has demolished the notion that Iraq can be ruled by one person or by one population group.

But Hishem Melhem, Washington-based bureau chief for An-Nahar daily newspaper, said that - despite high voter turnout and lower-than-expected levels of violence during the election - an anti-American bias still characterizes much of the Arab media. A talk-show host for the television network al-Arabiya, Mr. Melham said Arab governments and the Arab media have generally focused on the fact that there was less-than-perfect Sunni representation in the election. But he adds, if the final election turnout is as large as some Iraqi officials have indicated, the results will have political implications for neighboring Arab states as well as Iran and Turkey.

Nonetheless, the editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, Rami Khoury, told “International Press Club” host Judith Latham that the post-election mood in the Arab world is “quite mixed.” While Arabs appreciate how meaningful the democratic election was to Iraqis, many still “resent” the fact that it came about through what Mr. Khoury calls the “force of American arms, a violent regime change, and a preemptive war.” But, he agreed with Mr. Melhem that - if there is a peaceful transition, consensus on the constitution, and a restoration of security – the precise impact on countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria might be significant.

For now, the single most important task of the newly elected National Assembly will be to draft and adopt a new constitution that enshrines minority rights, according to Washington-based media analyst and Iraq specialist Edmund Ghareeb. Like his journalistic colleagues, Mr. Ghareeb stressed that the main challenge is to reach out to the Iraqis who did not vote or who boycotted the election, many of whom are Sunnis.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.