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Arab World Skeptical About Democracy in Iraq

The United States is working to establish a democratic government in Iraq. But there is considerable skepticism in the Arab world about whether that will be possible, and whether it would even be good for the United States.

The U.S. official overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, Jay Garner, met in Baghdad with 60 prominent Iraqis, and told them his job is to create an environment in which democracy can flourish.

Mr. Garner's statement echoed assurances given in Washington this week by White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The goals of a liberated Iraq, from the point of view about what type of government the United States seeks, is a democracy," he said. "A country that welcomes different religions, that has freedom of speech, freedom to worship, a free press. Those are the goals that we look to in the reconstruction."

Mr. Fleischer said the administration wants to make certain that the liberation of Iraq does not lead to the introduction of another form of dictatorship.

But there is political and academic debate in the Arab world about whether democracy can take hold in Iraq, and if so, what that would mean for the region and for the United States.

Political analysts in the region say one of the main difficulties of getting a free political process started in Iraq is expected interference from other governments in the region. The experts say a democratic Iraq would put enormous reform pressure on Arab governments, which are mostly not democratic. As a result, analysts say, they may try to block the development of democracy in Iraq, or at least influence it.

And, according to Walid Kazziha who teaches political science at American University in Cairo, that will get the backing of various groups within Iraq. "There is no doubt that Arab regimes will not only use their security apparatus to gain a foothold in an Iraq, which is now a free-for-all," said Walid Kazziha. "The thing is that, there will be, among the Iraqis, a good number of political currents and movements and parties that would try to link up with the various Arab governments, in order to strengthen their position, vis-a-vis other factions within Iraq. So Iraq, for the next few years, will become a haven for various regional powers to have their input in it. And, by doing so, everyone would be involved in the undermining of any attempt to establish a democratic process in Iraq."

The head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, Uraib el-Rantawi, goes even further, saying Arab governments are terrified of democracy. "I think, if there is a democratic Iraq, it will be big trouble for many of these leaders," he said. "I think, if the Americans really follow the track of nation-building in Iraq, I think, this will make a serious challenge to those dictators, or conservatives in some Arab countries. And, I think, they will try hard just to prevent this process from achieving and implementing its goals."

On Wednesday, the White House warned Iran to stay out of Iraqi politics, amid reports that Iranian agents are already operating in southern Iraq.

Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, has rejected the charge. But the senior U.S. official in Iraq, Mr. Garner, said he believes that much of the anti-American sentiment seen on the streets of Iraq in recent weeks is organized. "Those are well-organized, if you look at them," said Jay Garner. "And I think what you find in that is a lot of Iranian influence. I certainly do not think that represents anywhere near the majority. I think the majority is very silent. The majority is still somewhat afraid. And I think as you see them begin to get more comfortable, you will see more favoritism toward the U.S."

But Middle Eastern analysts say, if democracy were allowed to flourish in the region, Islamist parties would be voted into power in many countries, including many U.S. allies, and perhaps also Iraq.

Hisham Yousef, the spokesman for the 22-member Arab League, says that may not be good for the United States, even if a new Iraqi government is relatively moderate, like the one in U.S. ally Turkey. Mr. Yousef warns that Washington should be careful about what it wishes for. "Is Turkey a democracy," asked Hisham Yousef. "Did it allow the Americans to use their land to send troops, despite the fact they are a NATO member? And if many countries in the region were democratic, would they have allowed the bases on their lands to be used? So, we have to be very careful when we start thinking about democracy and where it would lead, and whose interests would it affect."

Rather than encourage a rapid move to democracy in Iraq, Hassan Nafae, the head of the political science department at Cairo University, says, Washington would be wise to phase in democracy over an extended period of time. "What you need to do is to encourage leftists, liberals, and everybody to take his share in the political life, and so on," he said. "But, I do believe, to create a positive environment for democracy, you have first to have a real regional plan for development, like the Marshall Plan for Europe, for example. If you do so, you might create the regional and domestic environment that could have some propensity for democracy. But, if you ask for completely free elections in the Arab world, it is absolutely sure that the Islamic trend will take over. And, if this happens, you will have regimes in the Arab world, who will be more vehement against the U.S. policy."

U.S. officials have not put a time-frame on the pace of democratic development in Iraq, nor have they said when elections might be held. But they say they are determined to help democracy develop in Iraq, despite of the difficulties and risks.