The fact that millions of Iraqis turned out to vote has led many here to conclude that George W. Bush was right to invade Iraq. What an odd conclusion.

It is indeed stunning and inspiring that so many Iraqis risked death to participate in the elections. This tells us that they’re desperate for freedom and self-government. But was that ever in doubt?

To listen to the giddy media commentary here, one could easily conclude that Iraqis voted to show their support for Bush and the U.S. army. Yet, the one theme common to all parties in the election was the need to end the U.S. occupation. “Many of the voters came out to cast their ballots in the belief that it was the only way to regain enough sovereignty to get American troops back out of their country,” noted Juan Cole, a professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan.

If there’s a “hero” of the emerging Iraqi electoral process, it isn’t Bush but rather Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who doggedly pushed for elections right from the start, seeing them as a vehicle for winning clout for his long-oppressed Shiite majority.

Bush, as it turns out, resisted elections, preferring Iraq be run by a U.S. pro-consul while a few hand-picked exiles drew up a new constitution. “If it had been up to Bush, Iraq would have been a soft dictatorship,” according to Cole.

Sistani grew impatient with this, particularly after the U.S. cancelled municipal elections across Iraq in June 2003. Angered by the cancellation, Sistani’s supporters protested en masse in Najaf, and Sistani issued a fatwa demanding national elections.

But Washington balked at the sort of real elections the ayatollah had in mind, proposing something more indirect, modelled on U.S.-style caucuses. Sistani didn’t trust that, and in January 2004 called hundreds of thousands of his supporters out onto the streets of Baghdad and Basra.

Those huge demonstrations unnerved Washington. With resistance from Sunnis and radical Shiites growing, Washington realized it needed the influential and moderate Sistani, so it agreed to direct elections. Sistani issued another fatwa making it a religious duty to vote. So chalk up the big turnout on election day to enthusiasm for democracy — and loyalty to the ayatollah.

Of course, one could say that Bush set the electoral process in motion by invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam. True. But that invasion — and subsequent occupation and anarchy — has resulted in an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 Iraqi deaths.

Perhaps those dead Iraqis would have been willing to die to achieve the new state of affairs in Iraq. Perhaps not. Certainly they weren’t consulted. The White House simply decided their lives were worth sacrificing for the sake of “democracy” — or “soft dictatorship” or whatever else Washington was after in invading Iraq. Easy for Bush to decide.

Next time Bush wants to “liberate” a country, we’ll no doubt be shown last week’s post-election footage of Iraqis dancing with joy.

Never mind that those dancing Iraqis were probably celebrating the first step in pushing foreign occupiers out of their land.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...