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Good news from Iraq

IN APRIL, I flew over Baghdad in a Blackhawk helicopter for the first time, and hope was not something I thought much about. A mere hundred feet above the city, I watched women cloaked in black scurry through the streets with their children. The narrow neighborhood routes to their homes were dingy with trash, crumbling buildings, and the carcasses of exploded vehicles.

My trips through Baghdad, by ground and air, became frequent, but hope became a word of concrete relevance. Two weeks ago, the National Assembly forwarded a draft constitution to the ballot for an October referendum. The Sunni Arabs, roughly 20 percent of the overall population, thrived under Saddam Hussein's protection and are unhappy with it. That's the focus of the Western media, but it's a focus that is lost on Iraqis.

On the night of the draft's approval, it was interesting that the Iraqi Army generals who work near my office watched local television coverage of spontaneous celebrations throughout Iraq.

Can constitutional democracy work here? Bernard Lewis, a premier historian of the Middle East, identifies the West as originator of harsh authoritarianism here, from Napoleon's dictatorship in Egypt in the 19th century, to the arrival of European-style fascism in the 20th century. Lewis insists that prior to European approaches the region produced far less menacing leaders. Lewis sees hope in history because these earlier leaders -- while not democrats -- governed through consultation and consensus among the major stakeholders in society. Looking at the political posters throughout Baghdad left over from the January election, I realize there may be a historical and cultural foundation that accepts democracy.

And look at what's happened in practice. January's election turnout was astounding; it will certainly be surpassed this fall. A recent poll in the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat reports that 88 percent of Iraqis plan to vote in the October referendum. The Kurds and Shi'ites, comprising 80 percent of the population, embrace the draft constitution. Even disgruntled Sunni Arab leaders are redoubling their efforts to register voters. Many Sunnis will vote in opposition, but opposition in a democracy isn't a bad thing; it's a victory.

And what does this mean for the insurgency? It's a disaster. The insurgency is despised because Iraqi civilians suffer most at their hands. Recently, even the spiritual leader of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader, demanded that attacks on civilians cease. And in the spring, Leslie Gelb of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations took a tour of Iraq and met with local leaders. He observed that while Iraqis are often frustrated with the Americans, they absolutely hate the insurgency and its murderous destruction. Despite threats, Iraqis will continue to defy the insurgency by voting.

Capable people comprise the constructive forces in Iraq. While Saddam Hussein's policies devastated education in the 1990s, older Iraqis grew up in one of the most literate countries in the Middle East. They can produce goods and services and run businesses.

Since the prewar period, there has been a 250 percent growth in the use of telephones. Electric power generation has grown above prewar levels, even in the midst of insurgent attacks, and after 40 years of complete neglect by Saddam. Every day schools are renovated (3,100 in the past year), and greater numbers of Iraqis receive medical treatment (healthcare spending is 30 times higher than in the prewar period).

The minister of defense is a former general who was once sentenced to death by Saddam. With a PhD in psychology, he now oversees an Iraqi Army of 88,000 soldiers. It is a brand new entity with flaws. But some units are assuming significant responsibilities, with the special forces regarded as exceedingly well-trained and capable. In the next six months, the Iraqi Army should be conducting a majority of the operations in Iraq. As the Iraqi Army matures, greater numbers of US soldiers will come home.

The future is uncertain, but there is concrete evidence of progress.

I work with a man who translates for the Coalition. Years ago, his family fled Iraq, but he refused to stay away while American soldiers fought the genocidal dictator in the place of his birth. He explains that Saddam was responsible for the murder of his own father. He insists that he will express gratitude to American soldiers by welcoming us as ''honored guests" in his Baghdad home once Iraq is free and at peace. I look forward to that day.

Brian Golden, a major in the US Army Reserve in Iraq, is a commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy.

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