Beyond the referendum, two big questions for Iraq

October 18, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Here is the 64-million-dinar question that will determine whether American troops can leave Iraq:

Will Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis find a formula that offers both communities a fair share in the rule and resources of their country? If so, the insurgency will wither, and both sides would likely endorse an American drawdown.

Don't look to the weekend's vote on an Iraqi constitution to provide the answer. That document is a symbol of the bloody struggle between the majority Shiite Iraqis and the minority Sunnis.

The answers to the two following questions will signal whether Iraq can be made stable in the coming months:

First, are leaders in both communities courageous enough to design a formula that gives each faction a fair stake in Iraq's future?

To understand what's needed, compare post-Saddam Hussein Iraq with South Africa immediately after apartheid. South Africa's whites had to adjust to a new role commensurate with their minority status; majority blacks had to reassure whites that they still had a role in the country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari compares Sunnis to South African whites and complains that they lack a leader like F. W. de Klerk, who persuaded his people to accept their new situation. Mr. al-Jaafari compares Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to Nelson Mandela, who reassured South African whites.

Ayatollah al-Sistani has played a conciliatory role, but his clerical position precludes the political outreach that Mr. Mandela did so well. Nor can he always control Shiite politicians. Despite his opposition, key Shiite leaders demanded the right to form a regional confederation in southern Iraq that would control much of Iraq's future oil flow and enshrined that right in the constitution.

As for Iraqi Sunnis, they definitely lack a de Klerk. Saddam Hussein eliminated or drove out any talented Sunni political leaders. Sunni Muslims have no religious hierarchy that produces a paramount leader.

Still, most Sunnis now seem to agree they should take part in December's parliamentary elections. What to watch? Will Sunni resolve to participate in December survive the acrimony over the constitutional vote?

The second question: Can Sunni and Shiite leaders avoid the pressure to wage a full-scale civil war?

Sunnis have stood by as outside Islamic radicals led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have blown up Shiite mosques and markets. Iraqi insurgents, primarily Sunnis, are supposedly seeking to drive out the Americans. Yet they have permitted their movement to be hijacked by terrorists who label Shiite Muslims apostates and want to kill them en masse.

Some individual Sunni clerics denounce such attacks. But Sunni politicians tell me they can't condemn Mr. al-Zarqawi because doing so would make them look like supporters of American occupation. Such moral blindness hastens the collapse of Iraq into full-scale civil war.

So far, Ayatollah al-Sistani has blocked full-scale revenge against Sunnis by Shiite tribal and village leaders. But his leverage is weakening.

Shiite militias have been absorbed into local Iraqi police forces. Many reports are emerging of men in police uniforms who kidnap and murder Sunni civilians. Down this road lies enormous danger.

What to watch? Will Sunni leaders condemn Mr. al-Zarqawi and drive his men out of their villages and towns? Will Shiite leaders rein in their militias? Will they also reassure courageous Sunnis that they have no intention of splitting the country and will share its oil?

Before a constitution can have any meaning, Sunni and Shiite leaders must reach a consensus that will prevent full-scale civil war from exploding. They have little time to lose.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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