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Arab world debates Iraqi elections
Updated: 2004-12-29 21:45

Osama bin Laden is just one of many voices in the debate on democracy in Iraq. For weeks, politicians, commentators and clerics both inside and outside the country have been furiously holding forth on whether Arabs should embrace the elections scheduled Jan. 30, and whether the polls would set Iraq on the path to democracy or dismemberment.

In a new audiotape, a man the CIA believes is bin Laden called for a boycott of the vote, saying it was being held under unIslamic, U.S.-imposed rules.

Ahmed Bishara, a Kuwaiti civil rights activist, was not surprised to hear bin Laden had weighed in, saying the impending vote had unsettled democracy's enemies whether they are extremists who believe only sharia, Islamic law, should prevail, or despots who do not want to see a model for reform emerge in their midst.

"These people are not used to the (democratic) process," Bishara said Tuesday, a day after Al-Jazeera broadcast the tape. "To add to their worries, the whole process has been driven by the United States by force of arms. If the United States succeeds, then you have not only regime change, but a system of government change."

The tape surfaced the same day the largest Sunni Muslim political party that had planned to take part announced its withdrawal, saying security was worsening and Iraqis did not understand the political process well enough to vote.

Clerics from Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which fears losing the political dominance it enjoyed under Saddam to the Shiite Muslim majority, have called for a boycott, citing the continued presence of American forces.

Meanwhile, the Sunni-dominated governments of Iraq's Arab neighbors have expressed deep unease at elections expected to usher in the first Arab Shiite government. In an editorial Tuesday, the pro-government Egyptian daily Al Ahram echoed concerns Sunni Arab Iraqis would be disenfranchised, which it said would lead to more sectarian violence.

Hossam Zeki, spokesman for the Cairo-based Arab League, has spoken of the potential for a "melting down of the Arab identity in Iraq."

Jordan's King Abdullah II, in an interview earlier this month with The Washington Post, accused Shiite and Persian Iran of trying to influence the elections, saying Iranians were pouring into Iraq to vote. But Iran also has concerns. Iran's supreme leader has said the elections will be a sham meant to cement U.S. and British control of Iraq's resources.

Iraqi and U.S. officials insist the vote will be held on time, despite calls for a delay to address at least some of the security and political concerns.

A CIA analysis of the purported bin Laden tape indicates the voice is that of the al-Qaida leader blamed for the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a U.S. official said Tuesday, adding the tape is further evidence of a shift in bin Laden's rhetoric.

Instead of outright calls to violence, bin Laden's latest messages appear to be relying on political argument against U.S. policy toward Muslims and the Middle East, the official said.

The voice says the Iraqi vote for a national assembly to write a constitution is being held under an interim constitution "imposed by the American occupation" and "infidel" because it did not rely solely on Islamic law.

"Therefore everyone who participates in this election will be considered infidels," the speaker says.

Radwan Masmoudi, director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said bin Laden's rhetoric on Iraq was typical of extremists who "think democracy is not compatible with Islam: It's God who rules, not the majority that rules."

But "clearly, the majority of Muslims all over the world are against bin Laden, are against extremism," Masmoudi said, asserting that the idea of democracy as the fairest form of society was gaining ground even among conservative Muslims.

Take for example Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which says it renounced violence in the 1970s and now pursues its goal of remaking Egypt into an Islamic state through the ballot box.

"We want to have elections, not only in Iraq in Egypt, in Tunisia, everywhere. But not under occupation," said Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of the Brotherhood.

He is among those who have called for postponing Iraq's elections, saying the vote should be held under U.N. auspices and delayed until the United States has announced firm plans to withdraw.

"It would be better to postpone to have more meaningful elections and more meaningful campaigning," said Masmoudi, of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

"But we don't live in a perfect world," Masmoudi added, saying the vote is an important first step toward sweeping reforms in a country that has known little but foreign rule and dictatorship for nearly a century.

"If Iraq becomes a stable democracy, it obviously becomes an attractive model for the Arab world to follow," he said.

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