Archive for Friday, February 4, 2005

Iraqi unity still a work in progress

February 4, 2005

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No one could help being moved by the scenes of Iraqis lining up to vote in elections on Sunday. Those Iraqis deserve our admiration and congratulations.

But Americans need to restrain their euphoria or they will be as disappointed as they were after President Bush prematurely declared an end to major military operations. These elections could lead to more violence and to the division of the country if the aftermath isn't handled right.

Sunday's ballot was about a shift of power -- from the minority of Sunni Muslims to the Shiite majority that suffered under Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, power has historically been a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all and the losers are murdered. Sunnis, upset at their diminished status, boycotted the election, and make up the bulk of the violent insurgents.

Iraq's future depends on whether Sunday's winners are willing and able to reach out to the Sunni losers and woo them into the political game.

To understand how stark is this game, Americans need a better grasp of Sunday's vote. Having just returned from Iraq, I'm surprised at media hyperventilation over the large size of the election turnout.

It was evident well before election day that Iraqi Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, would turn out to vote in huge numbers. (It was clear that Kurds, in the stable north, would vote in big numbers, too.)

The Shiite vote was less about "democracy," still an abstract concept in Iraq, than about vindication. In an election where few people knew the names of the candidates, the mere act of voting -- especially for the Shiite list "blessed" by the leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani -- was the final repudiation of Saddam.

Sistani had issued a fatwa, or edict, ordering his flock to vote as a religious duty, and every Shiite mosque repeated the order at Friday prayers. The posters of the Shiite list carried Sistani's picture. Shiites -- who venerate martyrs -- were bound and determined to vote, no matter the danger. This is why whole families went to the polls, even elderly grandmothers.

And, indeed, these elections would not have happened on Sunday had it not been for Sistani, a bearded septuagenarian who rarely comes out of his study. U.S. officials wanted to postpone the vote until after a constitution was drafted, but the aging ayatollah insisted that only an elected assembly could write that constitution. This, he hoped, would ensure that a Shiite majority could get the constitution it wanted.

Sistani urged that elections be held last year and resented U.S. pressure to delay them until January. I believe he was right (and so wrote at the time). Earlier elections, held before the insurgents grew so strong, might have pulled in Sunnis and sped the process of getting rid of U.S. occupation. Didn't happen.

Now the question is whether the likely Shiite victors will end the zero-sum approach to the Iraqi political game.

I believe the Shiites will try. I've interviewed just about every major Shiite religious and secular leader, and they all understand the danger posed by Sunni alienation. The insurgency cannot be cracked unless the bulk of the Sunnis can be split off from the violent insurgents, isolating the latter.

Shiite leaders will offer prominent Sunnis Cabinet posts and a role in writing the constitution.

"We propose a kind of national dialogue where these people would be invited to discuss different articles of the constitution," says Hussain Shahristani, a prominent Shiite candidate close to Sistani. He suggested Sunnis could also be invited to participate in the constitutional drafting committee.

But the effort to reach a broad consensus will test a culture with little experience of political give and take.

Even moderate Sunni intellectuals are frightened by Sunday's Shiite triumph. They fear the Iranian-born Sistani's real goal is to set up a theocracy controlled by Tehran. They resent the fact that all senior members of Hussein's Baath Party are banned from politics, even those who joined only to advance their careers.

Can Shiite leaders overcome memories of Hussein's mass graves and entice their fellow (Sunni) Iraqis into the system? Will Sunnis accept their minority status as part of a new political order?

I believe the Shiite leadership -- both religious and secular -- will make the effort, backed by Sistani. But Sunnis -- who have no strong post-Hussein leaders and are at risk of assassination -- may be afraid to respond, especially if U.S. or Iraqi forces can't protect them.

Whether Iraqis can reconcile will determine whether Iraq's elections are the prelude to change or further chaos. And whether U.S. troops can draw down anytime soon.

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