Two weeks ago, I drove up to Basra from Kuwait just before Iraq’s nationwide municipal elections. The sea of candidate posters immediately caught my eye. Nearly every inch of public wall space had been plastered with headshots of candidates representing dozens of parties. Beyond the mosaic of politicians’ faces, however, I saw something just as inspiring: hundreds of laughing children played in a new park set up on the side of the main road.
My eye fixed on one little boy in particular, hanging precariously from the monkey bars. With my maternal instinct kicking in, I pulled over. “Be careful,” I warned him. “That’s dangerous.” He was only six years old and smiled shyly. “But I haven’t played like this in my whole life,” he said. “Let me enjoy it.”
I smiled, too, remembering that I hadn’t seen anything quite like this either: a crowded children’s park in Basra — and Iraq on the upswing.
For the first time since I participated in the failed 1991 intifada against Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s prospects look greater than the dangers. The daily violence that battered the country has largely subsided. And the Iraqi mosaic, which was thought to have been broken beyond repair, has regenerated. Iraq is alive again.
Despite the many remaining challenges, there are telling indicators of the country’s health: bustling economic activity, a functioning security force and a vibrant press. And here’s something new for Iraq, as well as the rest of the Arab world: The country’s politicians have been held accountable to their constituents.
It was this month’s elections that, more than anything else, marked the rebirth of Iraq. The elections featured more than 14,000 candidates, many of them representing secular political parties. That Iraqis turned away from major religious political parties — one lost control of five provinces — suggests that we have entered a new era of Iraqi politics. Voters are more secure about their future, and Iraqis are showing their pragmatism by opting for competence and change and shunning religious parties that many analysts once expected to dominate the country for decades to come.
Several women work in my grandmother’s home, assisting with cleaning and other domestic work. None of them can read or write, but all of them made a point to request time off to vote on Election Day. As they left to head home to their districts to vote, one of them observed: “My vote makes a difference. If the politicians I vote for do not do good work, I can vote them out. For the first time in my life, leaders are accountable to me.”
The scene at many polling stations revealed how Iraqi women are becoming more comfortable dressing liberally in public. In the past, fundamentalist militias would harass and even kill women who didn’t cover up or didn’t wear their hijab modestly enough. Now the militias appear to have been defeated, and some Christian, Sabean and even secular Muslim women felt comfortable going to the polls without their heads covered.
Sunni turnout for the elections was massive, as high as 60 percent in some regions, and this fact alone shows that something transformative has happened in Iraq. The Sunni community is on board with the idea of a new Iraq, the rift has begun to heal — and now it’s time for us Americans to reunify as well.
Iraq’s success is a bipartisan issue. The blood spilt by Americans and Iraqis to make this happen was neither Republican nor Democrat. Now we owe it to them, and the future of our two countries, to reap the seeds they sowed. Now that elections are over in the U.S. and Iraq, our position has to look forward, not backward — not about vindicating past policies but recognizing where we are right now and where we should be going.