Iraq's Neighbors Watch As Votes Are Counted

The results of Iraq's election could have broader repercussions in the Middle East. Jacki Lyden speaks with Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, about reaction in the Arab world to the Iraq elections.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

The results of Iraqi election could well have broader repercussions in the Middle East. Joining us now is Rami Khouri, editor-at-large at Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. He's in New York just at the moment. Welcome back to the program, Rami.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor-at-Large, Daily Star): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

LYDEN: How closely are Iraq's neighbors following the results of this election?

Mr. KHOURI: Oh, very closely, because Iraq is now in a situation of transition and nobody knows what's going to happen as the Americans pull out and the new coalitions of power emerge inside Iraq. It is a new battleground or a terrain for competition among the major players in the region, and they're all, you know, big hitters - Turkey, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia are the main ones. And then there's others behind them possibly.

So, everybody's watching it carefully. They're not just sitting there watching it, they're actively involved in trying to make sure that what comes out of Iraq, both the election process, the continued political negotiations and the American withdrawal, that all that tends to favor them. So, this is going to be a messy situation for some time.

LYDEN: Want to talk about the timing for a second. Quil just talked about the time it'll take to form a new government. Is that a concern?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, in a land that measures its political history in millennia, I think we have to be really a little bit more patient. Months and weeks don't mean the same thing in Iraqi politics as they do in other places. So, this is not something that's going to become clear in months. They may have a new government being formed - we saw this in Lebanon; took them months and months to have a coalition government. And in the end you're going to get pretty similar policies that emerge out of some kind of national consensus.

The problem with countries like Iraq and other places - and everybody in the region now is talking about the danger of Lebanonization, that Iraq being a place of ethnic conflict and tensions within the country. The danger is that these places have never had really stable democratic-based consensus-based political decision-making systems.

And these things take, as you know in the West, take usually a century or so to really stabilize. So, we're talking about a long-term process here.

LYDEN: Rami, even with the difficulties surrounding the outcome of the election, it was a democratic process. Is there a twinge of envy among those important neighbors, or is it making them nervous?

Mr. KHOURI: Among the governments, there's absolutely no envy. Among some people in the Arab world and Iran, there's a little bit of envy but it's way outweighed, heavily outweighed by the tremendous destruction that has been brought to Iraq and the region by the American-led military intervention.

So, while everybody in the region wants democratic elections for themselves, obviously, and for others, nobody in the region wants to see continuation of the kind of forces that have been unleashed by the American invasion. Millions of refugees, a collapse of the government, the looting, criminality, violence, terrorism, opening up spaces for al-Qaida-type groups, tensions within, ethnic cleansing on a huge scale -two or three million refugees outside the country - hundreds of thousands killed.

I mean, the cost of what has happened in Iraq is so enormous and bloody and costly that nobody sees this at all being outweighed by the benefits of a potential democratic process that may emerge. Democracy that's stable has to emerge through an indigenous process and that hasn't yet happened in Iraq.

LYDEN: I just want to ask quickly, Rami, there has certainly been some concerns among Sunnis in recent days. And what would you say your predictions about the future of Iraq are, including that?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, the Sunnis certainly have concerns because the Sunni-dominated government under the Baathists was quite brutal and treated other groups pretty badly. And people obviously are seeking some revenge in their regressive grievance now. But the reality is that Sunni-dominated politics throughout the Middle East has not done very well.

You have tensions in many, many Arab countries, instability, all kinds of problems - economic, social, environmental. So, the Sunnis are concerned. But I think the important thing is not to look at these Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, Christian, etc., that people are fed up with ethnic politics. And what they'd like is a sense of citizenship and stable statehood, and this is the quest that has eluded almost the entire Arab world.

LYDEN: Rami Khouri is editor-at-large at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. He's also the Fares Center visiting scholar at Tufts University. Thanks for being with us today.

Mr. KHOURI: Thanks for having me.

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