There has been so much violence in Iraq that it's become hard to distinguish one senseless act from another. But there was a picture that ran on the front page of this newspaper on Monday that really got to me. It showed several Iraqi gunmen, in broad daylight, without masks, murdering two Iraqi election workers. The murder scene was a busy street in the heart of Baghdad. The two election workers had been dragged from their car into the middle of the street. They looked young, the sort of young people you'd see doing election canvassing in America or Ukraine or El Salvador.
One was kneeling with his arms behind his back, waiting to be shot in the head. Another was lying on his side. The gunman had either just pumped a bullet into him or was about to. I first saw the picture on AOL's home page, and I did something I've never done before — I blew it up so it covered my whole screen. I wanted to look at it more closely. You don't often get to see the face of pure evil.
There is much to dislike about this war in Iraq, but there is no denying the stakes. And that picture really framed them: This is a war between some people in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world who — for the first time ever in their region — are trying to organize an election to choose their own leaders and write their own constitution versus all the forces arrayed against them.
Do not be fooled into thinking that the Iraqi gunmen in this picture are really defending their country and have no alternative. The Sunni-Baathist minority that ruled Iraq for so many years has been invited, indeed begged, to join in this election and to share in the design and wealth of post-Saddam Iraq.
As the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum so rightly pointed out, "These so-called insurgents in Iraq are the real fascists, the real colonialists, the real imperialists of our age." They are a tiny minority who want to rule Iraq by force and rip off its oil wealth. It's time we called them by their real names.
However this war started, however badly it has been managed, however much you wish we were not there, do not kid yourself that this is not what it is about: people who want to hold a free and fair election to determine their own future, opposed by a virulent nihilistic minority that wants to prevent that. That is all that the insurgents stand for.
As is so often the case, the statesman who framed the stakes best is the British prime minister, Tony Blair. Count me a "Blair Democrat." Blair, who was in Iraq this week, said: "Whatever people's feelings or beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein and the wisdom of that, there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror. On the one side you have people who desperately want to make the democratic process work, and want to have the same type of democratic freedoms other parts of the world enjoy, and on the other side people who are killing and intimidating and trying to destroy a better future for Iraq."