[Outllook]A future for Iraq

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[Outllook]A future for Iraq

My heart aches when I think about Iraq.

The country has the elements necessary to become a prosperous country in terms of economy, history and culture. It’s the only nation in the Middle East that has abundant water as well as oil.

One of the four ancient river valley civilizations developed in Mesopotamia, along with the Yellow River in China, the Nile River in Egypt and the Ganges in India. Mesopotamian civilization developed along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in today’s Iraq thanks to the fact that there was plentiful water, a scarce resource in the region.

Mesopotamian civilization was the world’s first, and has left a rich cultural heritage for subsequent generations that we continue to benefit from today. Sumerians came to the area before 6000 B.C. and established a city state in southern Iraq, although it is not known where these people came from.

Around 3200 B.C., they devised the earliest cuneiform script known to humankind. The epic of Gilgamesh, the king of the Uruk Dynasty that was founded around 2800 B.C., is the earliest such work known to the world, and has been preserved on clay tablets until today.

Qurna, a small town in southern Iraq, is believed by many to be the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve are said to have lived. Another common claim is that Noah’s flood in the Old Testament was in fact a deluge that wiped out the Mesopotamian region.

Sumerian civilization merged into the Akkadian Empire that developed in northern Iraq, giving birth to Babylonia. The Tower of Babel and the Code of Hammurabi, the world’s earliest legal system, are the most well-known relics from Babylonian civilization.

The relics from the ancient civilizations in Iraq are precious resources and huge tourist attractions.

Iraq has been blessed with water, oil and tourist attractions, but its politics had not caught up with its environmental attributes. Saddam Hussein’s 35-year rule was pure tyranny. He gassed tens of thousands of his people. He had an eight-year war against Iran based on his ambitions of creating a Middle Eastern superpower. He invaded Kuwait and was punished by the United States. Throughout all this, the people suffered.

Hussein’s despotism ended in 2003 with the American invasion. But under the United States’ occupation, clashes among different religious denominations and ethnic groups have become commonplace in Iraq, instead of the peace through democracy that Washington had intended to create.

It seemed there was no hope for the country. People worried that if the U.S. army withdrew by 2011 as Washington and Baghdad agreed, a civil war would break out and the country would either be divided among the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, or only be held together in the form of a loose federation.

The Jan. 31 local elections, however, eased such worries quite significantly. In the elections for 444 officials for 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, 1,400 candidates from 400 political parties ran. The turnout rate was 51 percent.

There are four reasons to believe that the recent elections bode well for the future of Iraq. First, the Sunnis had boycotted the 2005 elections, but this time many of them voted, helping find a balance in the distribution of power.

Second, Islamic political parties used to be strong and secular political parties weak, but this year it was the other way around.

Third, on the day of the election, the Iraqi army and police, not the U.S. military, headed security, and there was no major violence.

Fourth, young candidates who have never sought asylum abroad ran in the election, a good sign for the future leadership of the nation.

The election results were good enough to give George W. Bush reason to boast. It has become easier for the Barack Obama administration to plan a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. The defeat of the Islamic political parties to some means diminishing the influence of Iran, which supported them, and of Al Qaeda.

If the Iraqis’ break from Islamic extremism and determination to take part in the political process continues to the December local elections, the seed for peace through democracy will finally be planted.

If the country stabilizes, many Koreans will visit the ancient land of the garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. If an economic resurgence begins in Iraq, Korean companies will do business with the country.

However, there is still a very long way to go. Iraq is surrounded by Iran, Syria and Jordan, and Jordan shares a border with Israel. Because of Iraq’s geopolitical location, the United States’ Iraq policy is directly linked to its instinct to protect Israel. Iraqi issues are intertwined with issues of the Middle East region as a whole.

Therefore, if there is no progress in negotiations for peace in Palestine, on Iran’s nuclear program, or in talks between Syria and Israel on handing over the Golan Heights, no one knows how long it will take for the seed of peace in Iraq to sprout and bear fruit.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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