Victory, now patience

February 01, 2005

MUCH HAS BEEN asked of Iraq's Shiites. First it was bravery, which millions displayed when they turned out to vote Sunday. Now it is forbearance.

Under the Ottomans, the British, the monarchists and then the Baathists, the Shiites were on the bottom, though they make up close to two-thirds of Iraq's population. Now, a democratic system offers them a chance to assume power for the first time: What will they make of it?

The traditional response, in the land where the Tigris and Euphrates gave rise to the first civilizations, would be to crush their opponents and tormentors, the Sunni Arabs. Yet it seems fairly clear that everyone from the secular prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to the religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, recognizes that that would be futile and self-defeating. For one thing, as long as the two sides are at each other's throats, the American troops won't be leaving.

But it's less clear that these and other Shiite leaders -- none of whom comes from a tradition of political tolerance -- will be able actually to establish and maintain a government firmly rooted in a culture of inclusiveness, whatever they may believe now. The world is expecting them to accomplish a feat that, to take just one example, has eluded the two communities in Northern Ireland for centuries. That's how hard this is going to be.

The assembly that is to emerge from Sunday's vote will be drafting a constitution -- perhaps in consultation with non-elected Sunni leaders, because the constitution will need to win approval from all the major ethnic and sectarian groups in October before going into effect. This holds out the possibility of more than half a year of political engagement by all sides, which might set a very healthy precedent. But how many more terrorist attacks by Sunni insurgents can the Shiites absorb? How soon before the Shiites blame all Sunnis? Can the Shiite leaders keep their own side together if, for instance, the firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr emerges from tranquility and decides to send his army into the fray against Sunnis? Or against the Americans?

Any kind of disruption is good for those who don't wish to see a democratic or amicable Iraq develop out of today's wreckage. Chaos leaves little room for tolerance, which is why there is little reason to expect the level of violence to decrease in the weeks to come. The insurgents -- like insurgents everywhere -- are out to provoke a reaction that will alienate ordinary people from the government.

What America can do in 2005 is continue to remind the Shiite community that the old way of an eye for an eye promises a dim and bitter future. Concretely, Washington should make it clear that progress toward a pluralistic democracy will hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops -- and spell out now the details of how that will happen. That would be peace with honor.

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