Millions served.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Jan. 31 2005 12:17 PM

Millions Served

The international press looks at Iraq's election.

If there was one message from the Iraqi election on Sunday, it was that newspapers are often vast repositories of conventional wisdom just begging for demolition. What had been broadly pegged by the media in recent months as a likely "illegitimate" election that might lead to an Iraqi civil war appeared to be nothing of the sort (even though 36 people died and nearly 100 others were injured in insurgent attacks). On Monday, the international press was scrambling to make up for having been so wide of the mark.

Arabic newspaper headlines varied between the skeptical and the modestly upbeat in describing the unexpectedly high participation level. Beirut's Al-Nahar, which has been more well-disposed toward the idea of U.S. intervention in the Middle East than other regional papers, ran a banner headline saying, "8 Million Iraqis Voted Despite the Suicide Attacks and the Shelling." A cross-town rival, Al-Safir, which is critical of the Americans and toes an Arab nationalist line, was doubtful. In a sign of bad temper, editors didn't make Iraq the paper's lead story and wrote this resentful heading on the election piece: "A New Iraqi Page [Has Been Turned]: [Can There Be] 'Democracy' Under Occupation?" It was a paradox that the Saudis, though unhappy with elections next door, were one of those mostly Sunni Arab countries urging Iraqi Sunnis to vote, for fear a boycott would hand Shiites a sweeping victory. That may be one reason why two London-based Saudi papers seemed relatively pleased with the results. Al-Hayat had the familiar headline describing voters' challenges, but it was the description of an especially high voting percentage in an off-lead story that better betrayed the paper's mood: "The Response Transcended Expectations and the Participation Level Was 72 Percent." Al-Sharq al-Awsat had a subtler headline (over a striking photo of a veiled Shiite dowager deciphering a ballot form): "Iraqis Vote for Iraq." This seemed a conscious effort to deny any linkage between the success of the vote and speculation about whether this meant the United States was more popular. It was an entirely Iraqi affair, the paper sternly insisted.

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France's Le Monde offered a more detailed breakdown of voting stats, recalling that some 14.2 million Iraqis were eligible to vote for 7,761 candidates regrouped in some 111 lists, all vying to enter a 275-seat parliament. The paper underlined the fact that participation was much lower in Sunni areas, particularly in Al Anbar province, but that "hundreds" of Sunnis had risked their lives to vote anyway. Elections also took place for provincial councils and for the autonomous Kurdish assembly. The final participation level has yet to be determined, but by Monday a loose figure was circulating, which Italy's La Repubblica put in a Web site headline: "Good Turnout: 60-75 Percent." However, the paper also reported that a leading Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, had contested the legitimacy of the election, insisting "the participation level was not as high as pretended" since journalists only had access to very few polling stations.

The Middle Eastern commentariat was of several minds on how to take the news. Those who had been agnostics on the election tended to fall back on a second line of defense, arguing, "Now the hard part begins." In an unsigned editorial, for example, Lebanon's English-language Daily Star called the election "historic," but added that the "ultimate test of the value of the sacrifice will be whether the months ahead will see recognition on the part of the country's Shiites and Kurds, principally, that Sunnis were mostly not part of Sunday's election process." But in a front-page commentary, Iraq's Al-Zaman begged to differ, arguing the election was "an occasion to confirm that the success characterizing the election is not exclusive to one or several [of Iraq's communities], but is a definite success for all [communities], and therefore a success for all Iraqis. There are no winners or losers when embracing the values of the nation. …"

The optimism was mostly shared by an Israeli writer in Ha'aretz, who described the vote as an "enormous achievement." However, he legitimately added, elections and democracy should not be confused; the "the political coalitions and constellations" that will predominate in the future "will determine the nature of Iraqi democracy: how much freedom of speech an Iraqi citizen enjoys, what the rights of women and of ethnic and religious minorities will be—and, no less important, how the country's foreign policy will be forged."

Britain's Daily Telegraph focused on a disturbing parallel event of the day, namely the crash of a British transport aircraft in an insurgent-dominated area north of Baghdad that killed 10 British soldiers. The paper observed that Britain's Defense Ministry "would not confirm a report by the Associated Press that the Iraqi militant group Ansar al-Islam group had claimed to have carried out the attack." The group said it downed the low-flying Hercules with an anti-tank missile. The rarely understated tabloid the Sun was close to the truth in its excess, with this headline on its front page: "They died for freedom."

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010.

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