By RALPH PETERS, New York Post January 25, 2005 -- IN just two days, Iraq took two giant steps forward. The forces of freedom in Baghdad announced the earlier bust of the al Qaeda killer behind the wave of suicide bombings. And Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the No. 1 terrorist in Iraq, told the world what he thinks. Under pressure, men and women reveal their true character. On the run and frantic, Zarqawi offered a perfect contrast to President Bush's inauguration speech supporting global freedom: Zarqawi announced that democracy is "an evil principle." There you have the deepest fear of oppressors everywhere. Whether dictators or assassins, they dread the free choice of free people. Terrorists know they can't win elections. Nor will many people vote to impose religious law on themselves. The only hope the terrorists have is the tyranny of the bomb, the gun and the lash. Even Moqtada al-Sadr, baby-faced bully of the Shi'a slums, realized that few of Iraq's Shi'as would vote for his con- game wrapped in religion. As a result, he's withdrawn his sup port for elections. The Iraqi response? Nobody cared. Even before the elections, democracy did what the guns could not: It downed another demagogue. Meanwhile, Zarqawi, the deadliest thug in the country, has grown desperate. In the wake of terror's defeat in Fallujah, his key lieutenant got fitted for handcuffs a triumph revealed only yesterday to avoid compromising the grab's intelligence value. Zarqawi knew his goon was gone. His wet-the-pants response? Lecturing the enthusiastic voters of Iraq that democracy is evil, then calling the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani "Satan" for supporting the elections. This is not sound politics. A Sunni Muslim, Zarqawi can only mobilize the Shi'a voters he fears by attacking their spiritual leader. But then Zarqawi has made one blunder after another in the face of wide spread support for Sunday's election. Indeed, while he and the other terrorists have played checkers, the Shi'a majority has been playing chess. For example, key Shi'a religious leaders wisely agreed that Iraq's first free elections should not replicate Iran's mis take of putting mullahs atop the government. That keeps the mullahs off the blame-line, should governmental efforts falter, while still allowing reli gious leaders a voice behind the scenes (an authority that men of God enjoy from Indiana to India). It calms Western fears of a "second Iran" emerging in Iraq and so reduces the chance of a confrontation between the Coalition and the mullahs. This isn't deviousness. It's statesmanship. We may live to be disappointed in them, but Iraq's Shi'as are confounding all the Western elitists who insist that the yokels aren't ready for democracy. Just let people vote. Then the left's prophets of doom who dismiss the deep human desire for freedom can read the results and squirm as they explain their faulty predictions. What's really happening in Iraq? Contrary to media depictions, suicide bombings and other attacks are going down, not up. The terrorists are running short on resources. The bad boys are getting popped not least because Iraqis, sick of the violence, turn them in. And the leading terrorist in Iraq just told the common people what he thinks of them: He should decide their future, not their ballots. Think that's going to play well with the masses? Does anyone except The New York Times believe that a Jordanian- born, Sunni Muslim terrorist is going to convince Iraq's majority Shi'a Arabs or the Kurds to throw up their hands, stay home on Election Day and hand him power? Rarely has the contrast been so clear between the forces of freedom and those of oppression. Last Thursday, America's president offered the world a courageous vision for the future. Over the weekend, the top terrorist in Iraq insisted that the world should return to a cruel and savage past. There you have the basic conflict of the 21st century. Iraq's election won't produce perfect results. But the issue is no longer whether the people will vote, but how many millions of voters will risk their lives to go to the polls. Those who still warn that Iraq's elections are misguided are on the side of the terrorists. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi thinks so. And he's right.