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Democracy Expert Says Newly Elected Iraqi National Assembly Faces Huge Challenges

Democracy expert Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, recently described the democratic election in Iraq and the courage of Iraqi voters as “deeply moving.” He said that there needs to be a “far-reaching dialogue” among the Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority with many of the Sunni groups that remained outside the democratic process and encouraged a boycott of the election. Otherwise, he warned, the violence will continue and the insurgency will persist at its current level.

A former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Larry Diamond spoke on VOA News Now’s “Press Conference USA” with host Carol Castiel and panelist Avi Davidi of VOA’s Persian Service, about the prospects for democratic development in Iraq and the impact of its historic elections on Iran and neighboring states.

Larry Diamond said there are deep divisions on constitutional questions such as the role of religion in public life and the degree to which Islam should be established as the primary basis of legislation for the country. Furthermore, he predicted a vigorous debate over the structure of Iraq – that is, whether it should be unitary or federal, to what degree the Kurdistan regional government should continue with its current powers, and to what extent the veto rights for minority groups should be preserved in the final constitution.

Professor Diamond said the role of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq could only be determined after the new government is chosen. He predicted that coalition forces will need to be involved at “close to their current levels” for some time to come, but he said these forces could be gradually drawn down as Iraqi troops are trained. He said he was “somewhat critical” of the U.S. government and its coalition partners for failing to make clear to nationalistic Iraqis, especially in the Sunni heartland, that their country would not be under “indefinite military occupation.” But, he also said that the U.S. administration should not state a specific deadline for withdrawal. Professor Diamond recommended instead that the United States promise that it would not seek permanent military bases in Iraq and suggested that it might state a “goal” for withdrawal with the condition that the violence is brought under control.

With respect to Iran, professor Diamond said the current Iranian regime has very little legitimacy or popular support, which means that Iran is “ripe for change.” But the opposition is weak and disorganized. Furthermore, the government perceives that the United States is “bogged down” in Iraq. However, if democracy takes hold in Iraq, Professor Diamond said the mullahs will become “quite nervous” and the democratic forces in Iran may become emboldened again. He said he would like to see more U.S. engagement with Iran and a lifting of the economic embargo. However, Iran’s behavior regarding its nuclear program must be an element in the discussion. Professor Diamond said “warm and cordial ties” would be good for both the Iranian and American peoples, including social, economic, intellectual, and cultural exchanges.

Larry Diamond described both the recent Iraqi and Palestinian elections as important for democracy throughout the region. If Iraq succeeds in developing a viable democracy with a constitutional order, freedom of the press, and the rule of law, he said it could have a powerful effect on neighboring countries. If negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders ultimately prove successful and if Syrian troops were to withdraw from Lebanon, he said it would create “considerable momentum” for democratization in the Middle East. Although he applauds the emphasis President Bush has placed on promoting democracy in the Middle East, professor Diamond said the administration must be consistent in its approach to dictators everywhere if the U.S. initiative is to be credible. To dispel the perception that the United States is driven by a desire to control Middle Eastern oil, Larry Diamond believes the Bush administration should work in close partnership with democrats in the region and with the European allies to encourage democratic change.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.