While kidnappings and head-choppings in the Sunni Triangle dominate the news from Iraq, the real battle for that nation's future is fought in diplomatic, political and media arenas outside that country.
The terrorist movement in Iraq, at times graced with the label of "insurgency," is in no position to impose its will on the nation. With the help of its outside backers, it could, to be sure, continue kidnappings and killings for years.
More than a dozen countries (Colombia, Peru, Malaysia, the Philippines, Algeria, Egypt, etc.) have experienced similar terrorist movements in recent decades. In every case, the terrorists, having pushed the limits of brutality as far as they could, were ultimately defeated.
It took Peru almost a quarter-century to defeat and destroy the vicious Shining Path. At no time, however, did it manage to threaten the basic structures of the nation or, ultimately, to divert its process of democratization. In Colombia, an insurgency that dates back almost 40 years is now facing certain defeat. It took the British almost 12 years to defeat the so-called "insurgency" in Malaya which, despite massive support from China and the U.S.S.R., was doomed from the start.
The ultimate reason for terrorist movements' failure is the same that constitutes their raison d'etre: Individuals and groups choose terrorism because they know they cannot mobilize popular support.
The terrorist hopes to force history in his direction with the help of bombs and guns. He tries to substitute his will for the will of the people. While claiming to fight in the name of the people he is, in fact, excluding the people from the political process if only because "ordinary citizens" are not prepared to die, let alone kill, for abstract ideas.
So the "insurgency" in Iraq is going nowhere fast. It will be as roundly defeated as were its predecessors in so many other countries. The danger for Iraq's future lies elsewhere.
It comes, in part, from Americans who want Iraq to fail because they want President Bush to fail. Some 81 books paint the president as the devil incarnate; Bush-bashing is also the theme of three "documentaries" plus half a dozen Hollywood feature films. Never before in any mature democracy has a political leader aroused so much hatred from his domestic opponents.
Others want Iraq to fail because they want America to fail, with or without Bush. The bitter tone of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he declared the liberation of Iraq "illegal" shows that it is not the future of Iraq but the vilification of the United States that interests him.
Add to this the recent bizarre phrase from French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The head of the Figaro press group went to see him about the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq; Raffarin assured him they would soon be freed, reportedly saying,
"The Iraqi insurgents are our best allies."
In plain language, this means that, in the struggle in Iraq, Raffarin does not see France on the side of its NATO allies - the U.S., Britain, Italy and Denmark among others - but on the side of the "insurgents."
Those who want Iraq to fail because they hate Bush and/or America as a whole (for reasons that have nothing to do with Iraq) know that "the insurgents" can't get anywhere. Nor would the Bush- or America-bashers really want Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi to become ruler of Iraq.
If Jimmy Carter had been U.S. president or if Iraq had been liberated by the European Union, we would have none of the hot air that is blown about the war throughout the world. But someone like Carter or an entity like the European Union could never say boo to a goose, let alone destroy a vicious tyranny.
Those who want Iraq to fail so that Bush and/or America will also fail are now focusing their energies towards a single goal: postponing elections in Iraq for as long as possible. To achieve that goal, they will stop at nothing.
It was on that basis that opponents of Iraqi elections have cooked up a story around the claim that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the primus inter pares of the Shiite clerics in Najaf, wants the election postponed or may even boycott.
U.S. and European newspapers that had always dismissed Sistani as "a reactionary mullah" have recently put him in the headlines and devoted lengthy editorials and op-ed pieces to his supposed opposition to the holding of elections.
The initial story was built around the claim that Sistani is unhappy with the elections because the Shiite share is limited to 55 percent of the total rather than 60 percent.
This is an absurd claim for the simple reason that the planned elections treat all of Iraq as a single constituency in which every vote is equal to every other vote. And if several or even all of Iraq's political parties wish to enter the election with a single list of national unity, how could Sistani overrule them? The ayatollah has never claimed to be a dictator.
Nor is Iraq an Iranian-style "Islamic" state, where a single mullah can overrule everyone else and even suspend the basic tenets of the religion. Anyone who knows Sistani would know that he is the last person to play the deadly game of Shiite-Sunni rivalry.
Note also that the January election is to form a Constituent Assembly, a body that will write the nation's new constitution. It is therefore important that the assembly enjoy the widest possible support among all Iraqis.
Immediately after Saddam's fall, some of us had urged the Bush administration to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government and organize elections as quickly as possible. Sistani endorsed that view as early as August 2003, calling for a transfer of power to the Iraqis and the holding of elections.
His position has not changed. Sistani wants elections, and wants them as soon as possible. All he asks is that the international community, including the United Nations, play a role in organizing and supervising the series of elections planned for next year. His hope is that Iraq would not only have a new constitution, to be approved in a popular referendum, but also an elected parliament and a government with a clear electoral mandate before the end of 2006. That, he knows, is the fastest way for the Coalition forces to leave Iraq in peace and with dignity.
Sistani insists on international participation, beyond the U.S.-led Coalition, for two reasons. First, he knows that divisions among the big powers over Iraq are harmful for all concerned. He wants them to unite in helping the people of Iraq make their true feelings known through free elections. Second, he knows that the elections will enjoy greater legitimacy if the international community unanimously endorses the results.
Sistani's message is simple: Think of the future of Iraq, not the settling of past scores.