Acts of Bravery

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 1, 2005

You'd have to be pretty hardhearted not to be moved by the courage of the millions of Iraqis who insisted on turning out to vote yesterday despite the very real threat that they would be walking into mayhem and violent death at the polls.

At polling stations across the country there were women in veils holding the hands of children, and men on crutches, and people who had been maimed during the terrible years of Saddam, and old people. Among those lined up to vote in Baghdad was Samir Hassan, a 32-year-old man who lost a leg in the blast of a car bomb last year. He told a reporter, "I would have crawled here if I had to."

In a war with very few feel-good moments, yesterday's election would qualify as one. But as with any positive development in Iraq, this one was riddled with caveats. For one thing, dozens of people were, in fact, killed in election day attacks. And shortly after the polls closed, a British military transport plane crashed northwest of Baghdad.

So there was no respite from the carnage.

And we should keep in mind that despite the feelings of pride and accomplishment experienced by so many of the voters, yesterday's election was hardly a textbook example of democracy in action. A real democracy requires an informed electorate. What we saw yesterday was an uncommonly brave electorate. But it was woefully uninformed.

Much of the electorate was voting blind. Half or more of those who went to the polls believed they were voting for a president. They weren't. They were electing a transitional national assembly that will have as its primary task the drafting of a constitution. The Washington Post noted that because of the extreme violence that preceded the election "almost none of the 7,700 candidates for the National Assembly campaigned publicly or even announced their names."

As John F. Burns put it in The Times yesterday:

"Half a dozen candidates have been assassinated. As a result, the names of all others have not been made public; they were available in the last days of the campaign on Web sites inaccessible to most Iraqis, few of whom own computers."

"Democracy," according to "The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World," "refers to a form of government in which, in contradistinction to monarchies and aristocracies, the people rule."

That is not the case in Iraq and is not likely to be the case soon. In much of Iraq the people exist in a kind of hell on earth, at the mercy of American forces on the one hand and a variety of enraged insurgents on the other. Despite the pretty words coming out of the Bush administration, the goals of the U.S. and the goals of most ordinary Iraqis are not, by a long stretch, the same.

The desire of the U.S., as embodied by the Bush administration, is to exercise as much control as possible over the Middle East and its crucial oil reserves. There is very little concern here about the plight of ordinary Iraqis, which is why the horrendous casualties being suffered by Iraqi civilians, including women and children, get so little attention.

What most ordinary Iraqis have been expressing, not surprisingly, is a desire for a reasonably decent quality of life. They are a long way from that.

In large swaths of the country, death at the hands of insurgents seems always just moments away. It's also extremely easy for innocent Iraqis to get blown away by Americans. That can occur if drivers get too close - or try to pass - an American military convoy. Or if confusion arising from language barriers, or ignorance of the rules, or just plain nervousness results in an unfortunate move by a vehicle at a checkpoint. Or if someone objects too vociferously to degrading treatment by U.S. forces. Or if someone is simply suspected, wrongly, of being an insurgent.

Crime in many areas is completely out of control. Kidnapping for ransom, including the kidnapping of children, is ubiquitous. Carjackings are commonplace. Rape and murder are widespread.

In a country with the second-largest oil reserves in the world, drivers have to wait in line for hours at a time for gasoline. Electric power is available just a handful of hours a day. Unemployment rates are sky high. With many women destitute, prostitution is a growth industry.

Iraqis may have voted yesterday. But they live in occupied territory, and the occupiers have other things on their minds than the basic wishes of the Iraqi people. That's not democracy. That's a recipe for more war.