Senator John Thune, Weekly ColumnRecently, the people of Iraq overwhelmingly denounced violence by exercising a newfound freedom – their right to vote for a draft constitution. It may take a few days or even weeks until we know the official outcome of the vote, but what we do know is that Iraqis turned out in record numbers to take control of their destiny. This is a remarkable act for a nation that for decades was subjected to a reign of intimidation, violence and oppression.
If the referendum passes, the December election will be for a new national assembly to implement the constitution and serve for a period not to exceed four years. If the referendum fails, the December election will be for a new national assembly to draft a constitution within one year. It is important to remember that only three years ago, Iraqis were living under a brutal dictator who killed hundreds of thousands with impunity.
Regardless of the outcome, one victory is clear: on the center stage of the War on Terror, democracy is winning against terror.
I was fortunate to visit with our troops and Iraqi voters in Baghdad six days after the January election. In last week’s election, as many as two-thirds of Iraqis safely turned out to vote on their draft constitution—a significant rise from the 58 percent who voted in January’s election. Not only did general numbers increase, but participation was broader and more varied, with a noticeable increase in Sunni Arab turnout—a sign that the political strategy in place to cross religious and political boundaries and involve all Iraqis is working.
This recent vote spoke volumes not only about the popularity of democracy, but about the state of security in Iraq. Violence was isolated and reduced from January. Despite a few disturbances, the overall process was peaceful and the streets were calm. Most importantly, the chief enforcers of the peace this past weekend were Iraqis themselves, with Iraqi Security Forces clearly and successfully taking the lead in securing the polls.
Since January, Iraqi Security Forces have seen a considerable increase in numbers—now up to nearly 200,000. In the recent Tal Afar operation, Iraqi forces outnumbered Coalition forces for the first time in a major operation. That distinction did not exist a year ago. American soldiers continue to train forces and offer crucial support, but Iraqis are taking the important steps toward self-governance and independence.
While insurgency continues and challenges remain, Iraqis have made significant progress in only three short years.
Three years ago, Iraqi women lived under a regime that endorsed beheadings, rape, torture and murder as “tactics” to keep women out of politics and the public sector. Today, Iraqi women are visibly active on their country’s political, social, and economic fronts. Of the 40 Cabinet-level Ministerial positions, six are held by women. Of the 275 seats in the Transitional National Assembly, more than 30 percent are held by women.
Three years ago, Iraq was virtually a closed society, in which Saddam could circulate his propaganda without restriction. There were no commercial television or radio stations and no independent newspapers or magazines. Today, there are 44 television stations, more than 100 independent newspapers and magazines and 72 commercial radio stations. Thousands of Iraqis are carrying once-forbidden cell phones and internet cafes are popping up across the country. Iraqis are exchanging information openly and freely, learning more about each other and the rest of the world.
And three years ago, a deranged dictator—who had for more than 20 years intimidated, tortured and even gassed and buried his own people to protect his regime—remained in power. Today, the former dictator has been reduced to a common criminal behind bars, preparing to stand trial this week for his crimes against humanity.
As the world awaits the results of Saturday’s vote, the chief opponent to freedom in Iraq awaits his own verdict.
Fortunately, we can be certain of one thing: The fate of a former tyrant and his once captive nation will take two very different paths. Freedom in Iraq will flourish, and a long-suffering people will be vindicated as the curtains close on a legacy of corruption in a Baghdad courtroom.