CAIRO — When Iraqis swarmed to the polls last week to cast ballots in parliamentary elections, the Bush administration hailed a democratic victory in a region creaking under the weight of corruption, cronyism and dictatorship.
But the outcome may not be what the administration had in mind when U.S. forces swept President Saddam Hussein from power more than 2 1/2 years ago. Iraq's elections were dominated by Islamic clerics, and the incoming parliament is likely to include a large proportion of Islamist legislators, many of whom have ties to the mullahs of Iran.
In recent elections across Iraq and other countries in the region, Islamist parties have capitalized skillfully on new political freedoms to gain clout and legitimacy unprecedented in the modern Middle East. The growing strength of the religion-based parties is the single most unpredictable element in the Bush administration's grand vision to replace despots with democracy.
Whether it's the Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Palestinian group Hamas or Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist parties have benefited from the administration's promotion of democracy in the Arab world. But the Islamists also have gained strength from widespread opposition to U.S. policy, which has convinced some Muslims that their religion is under attack.
"U.S. foreign policy has helped directly in the rise of the Islamists," said Gamal Banna, a liberal Egyptian writer and brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. "The intervention in Iraq and the support for Israel's policies are creating so much anger in the region. The Islamists are benefiting from that anger."
Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that they are concerned about the level of anti-Americanism and the power it has given Islamic-based parties at the ballot box, but they insist that the danger of extremist ideology can be contained.
Barry F. Lowenkron, an assistant secretary of State, referred to the risks that extremist governments -- Islamic-based or not -- might come to power as "bumps in the road." In an interview last week, he listed steps needed to encourage competition from secular parties in the Arab world, including the lifting of emergency laws, expansion of press freedom, allowing the right of assembly and other measures to ensure that diverse voices can be heard.
He also pointed out that there was a difference between what he called "extremists" and Islamic parties.
Still, Islamic groups present a dilemma for the United States. Although Washington historically has kept Islamists at arm's length, the widespread popular support for religious parties is difficult for any advocate of democracy to ignore.
Across the region, Islamist parties have proved themselves best poised to gain from any democratic opening. They enjoy easy access to mosques, which are virtually the only spaces where politics are publicly discussed in many Arab countries. Their slogans tap into deep religious feelings, and their legacy of social and welfare work gives them easy credibility on the street.
And Islamists have been clever in recasting themselves to suit the current mood. Many religious politicians stopped talking about Islamic republics and became unabashed democracy cheerleaders.
"We believe in democracy. The ballot box has the final say in whether you'll be ruling or not. We don't believe in any other means of taking power," Mahdi Akef, the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said in a recent interview. "How would I be a Muslim and abolish freedom at the same time? This is nonsense."
But many Islamic groups remain carefully ambiguous about how they plan to wield their newfound power. Some analysts believe that if Islamists felt strong enough, they would seek to curb the rights of non-Muslims and women; downgrade relations with the United States and Israel; or impose a harsh Islamic law, or Sharia. Hamas and Hezbollah, for their part, have been labeled terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
In short, there is a real fear that Islamists will exploit democratic openings to rise gradually to power, only to dismantle those liberties once they've taken control.
"I'm sure the Brothers still want to apply an old-fashioned version of Sharia, treat [Coptic Christians] as second-class citizens and stay in power forever when they form the government," said Emad Gad, an Israel expert at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "They are coming up with all these moderate slogans so as not to frighten anyone, especially the West."
Other analysts say Islamists are not to be feared. They argue that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which shook Egypt by winning nearly 20% of the seats in the recent parliamentary election, are evolving into more moderate organizations as they gain political power.