Lines in the sand

October 27, 2005

This is the strangest good news to come out of Iraq in quite a while: Three of the most virulently anti-American political parties agreed yesterday to band together to increase their chances of success. Washington was thrilled.

Thrilled because it means these parties, which represent Sunni Arabs, are serious about trying to achieve their objectives through politics rather than joining in the street-fighting - for now, anyway.

Iraqi leaders declared Tuesday that the new constitution had been approved in this month's referendum - despite overwhelming Sunni opposition - and that sets in motion elections for a new parliament, to be held in December. The Sunni parties, though still grumbling about what they believe was election fraud, hope to make such a strong showing that they can face down the Kurds and Shiites who hold power and make it clear that the manifest shortcomings of the new constitution must be addressed. It's a long shot.

The official referendum results demonstrate the stark divisions in Iraq. It is misleading to say that 79 percent of the voters approved the new charter, though that's what the numbers show. In fact, a huge majority of Shiites and very nearly all the Kurds voted yes, and the Sunni Arabs were almost as unanimous on the negative side. This is not a red state-blue state sort of demarcation, but something far more profound, and infinitely more dangerous.

This week, some of the politicians on the winning side were saying that the Sunnis would simply have to come to terms with their minority status. This is an understandable but unhelpful approach. The fact is that the largely Sunni insurgency grows nearly every day; weekly attacks have tripled since the beginning of 2004. More Iraqi security forces are getting closer to fighting trim, but there has been no let-up in American casualties.

The only possible solution is to entice the Sunni community into playing a meaningful and continuing political role, and there's a good way to get started on that: The constitution should be rewritten to make it absolutely clear that oil revenues will be evenly shared throughout the country, and that the largely oil-free Sunni areas will not be impoverished. After that, a process must be worked out to allow former Baath Party members (generally Sunnis) who are not guilty of actual crimes to return to government service.

Iraqis clung to a resilient optimism even as their country fractured, but polls show that it's fading now. Joblessness is way too high, electricity output still way too low. An outright civil war hasn't quite broken out yet, but avoiding one will not be easy. Sunni politicians want to see American troops leave the country; to begin a measured withdrawal, perhaps tied to the seating of the new parliament, would seem like an obvious step that the United States could undertake to help keep the political process afloat.

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