Waiting for the ebb

February 15, 2005

THE RESULTS of the Iraqi elections signal the beginning of a period of what is sure to be astonishingly murky political deal-making, but one thing is already clear: For both the Kurds and the Shiite Arabs, this is the high-water mark.

Democracy, with luck, will progress in Iraq, but if it does, the country's two largest groups face an inevitable decline in their newly won clout. So the question that Kurdish and Shiite leaders have to ask themselves is this: Just how much of a decline are they prepared to ratify as talks toward a constitution and permanent government move along?

For Washington, there's a different question: Will the temptation to wield a hand in the intricate negotiations overcome the common-sense notion that interference by America is almost bound to backfire?

Actually, let's put the two questions together and modify them slightly: Could the Shiite Arabs find that the only way they might actually solidify their position is to have the Bush administration, alarmed by their potential alliance with Iran, clumsily intervening and rallying Iraqis' patriotic fervor to their side? And if this happens, do the Kurds take a walk to independence?

Now, why is this the high tide? Here's a two-part answer:

The Sunni Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, largely sat out the election. Short of civil war, that probably won't happen again, and their participation instantly dilutes the influence of the other two main groups.

After years of oppression, expectations are high among Kurds and Shiites. Yet their political leaders are bound to disappoint them, because that's in the nature of emerging democratic politics. Both the Kurdistan Alliance and the United Iraqi Alliance, which took 26 percent and 48 percent of the vote, respectively, are, as their names suggest, coalitions. And there's nothing like trying to keep a coalition together when the going gets tough and the backbiting sets in.

In other Arab nations, there is considerable concern over the possible emergence of a religiously oriented Shiite government right next to Iran. In fact, the front-runner to be Iraq's new prime minister, Abel Abdul-Mahdi, strikes a moderate and somewhat secular tone, but it is worth pointing out that the avowedly secular Iraqi List got just 14 percent of the vote. The United Iraqi Alliance had the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and many of its members want to see Sharia law imposed.

Arabs note that the Kurds, too, have good relations with Tehran.

This is where American meddling becomes a risk. Together, the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurds can run the country, though some number of Sunnis have to be persuaded to join in ratifying a constitution later this year. These are not exactly the people that Washington's neoconservative war planners had in mind back in 2003. They're not hostile to America, of course, not right now -- but that Iran business is a concern. Maybe if the democratic process could be tweaked a little in favor of ... well, you get the idea.

The Bush administration should let the winners of last month's election work out their own destinies. A democratic Iraq will be a country that no single group can dominate. Soon enough, power will fragment. There is little that the victorious Shiite or Kurdish politicians could do to stop that -- even if they wanted to.

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