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Iraq's Red-Line Democracy

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The voice of the people has been hard to ignore in Iraq. Despite more than two months of haggling since the Jan. 30 election, the religious and ethnic factions in the new National Assembly finally chose a government this week.

In the end, the voters' simple message was this: We want one Iraq, despite the red lines being drawn among Sunni, Kurd, and Shiite. A democracy isn't a contest for power among groups but a way for an entire free people to govern themselves - and keep each individual free.

One startling result of the back-room compromises was that this largely Arab nation now has a Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani. While the Kurds command enough votes in the assembly to garner such posts, Mr. Talabani made the point in a speech warning against sectarian and ethnic divisions: "Our aim now is to achieve the democratic goals that the Iraqi people struggled for," he said.

Keeping that message of unity won't be easy as the leaders write a constitution and speed up formation of an army that can replace US forces. Shiite clerics want the constitution to reflect Islamic principles and may seek to suppress the Sunni Baathists of the ousted Hussein regime. Kurds want autonomy, control of oil-rich Kirkuk, and their own militias. Sunnis just want to survive as a minority in a Shiite-dominated nation.

Getting the US military out of Iraq ASAP and blocking Iran's meddling hand should help Iraqi unity for now. Like much of the Middle East, Iraqis want to rise above their differences.

A new UN report, written by Arab scholars, notes "the acute deficit of freedom and good governance" in the Arab world. But, as one author says, "The Arabs, according to international surveys, have the greatest thirst for freedom and are the most appreciative of democracy out of all people of the world."

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