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US Hopes to Avoid Iranian-Style Theocracy in Iraq - 2003-05-03

Recent demonstrations in Iraq calling for the establishment of an Islamic state have led to concern among some officials and observers in Washington about the possibility of an Iranian-style theocracy.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing last month that an Iranian-style government in Iraq would not be permitted. "A vocal minority clamoring to transform Iraq in Iran's image will not be permitted to do so," he said. "We will not allow the Iraqi people's democratic transition to be hijacked by those who might wish to install another form of dictatorship."

But the possibility that a religious government with its base in the Shi'ite majority could be elected has sparked debate in Washington. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently suggested an Islamic government can also be democratic.

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, who currently serves on an influential Pentagon advisory panel, told the CBS television network recently that the United States would have to accept a religious government that was democratically elected. "If we want, as I believe we must, democratic rule in Iraq, then we will have to accept the consequences of freely chosen leaders by the Iraqis," said Mr. Perle. "That's where legitimacy lies, not in some bureaucracy either from New York or elsewhere, but in what the people of Iraq want for themselves."

Mr. Perle said U.S. officials should seek to bolster democratic forces in Iraq to prevent the establishment of a religious dictatorship. But he said a religious-based government in Iraq does not necessarily have to be extremist or undemocratic. "I think the Iraqis are going to prefer a state in which people enjoy real individual freedom, in which they are not oppressed by the extreme forms of Islamist thought for example, the Wahabi-Saudi-propagated form of Islam, which preaches hatred of the west, which preaches jihad, or holy war," he said. "It doesn't have to be that kind of state. And I very much hope, and I think most Iraqis hope, that it will be a real democracy, in which all the people of Iraq can profess their religion freely, and live in real freedom."

Senator Joseph Lieberman of New Jersey agrees that the United States needs to work with Iraqis to ensure a democratic government. The Senator, who is running for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, also spoke to CBS recently. "We don't want this to turn into a theocracy," said senator Lieberman. "In some ways, the Shi'ia Muslims, for instance, never had freedom of religion under Saddam Hussein. And I think, what we want to help them do now is build a country, in which all forms of Islam, all forms of all religions can be respected, and not have freedom compromised in any way. That's the challenge we have. But it's one, I think, that the majority of Iraqis will support, and ultimately, they're the ones who will make the decision."

Overall, U.S. officials and policy analysts agree that they do not want to see a religious dictatorship established in Iraq. However, debate continues over whether a democratically elected religious government would be acceptable to the United States.