Vote. Then what?

December 14, 2005

The elections in Iraq tomorrow will probably be crucial, but the Iraqis and the world probably won't know how crucial, or in what way, for a good long while. They could stem Iraq's turn toward civil war, or they could accelerate it - depending not only on the results but also on how the winners conduct public policy once in office. They could lead to a redefining of the American role - but not necessarily in a way that would allow for a graceful exit. It's important to recognize that elections are not in themselves a sign of strength.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has fractured Iraq, and with a weak central government, the sectarian and ethnic fissures have if anything widened. The police are largely in the hands of the religious Shiite group known as the Badr Brigade, complete with clandestine death squads, and the army that is slowly emerging is in truth a collection of ethnic units, many of them essentially private militias. The parliament elected tomorrow must turn as a first order of business to the severely flawed constitution approved earlier this year - a constitution that practically spells out national disintegration.

Iraq is already on the descent into civil war. President Bush acknowledged this week that perhaps 30,000 Iraqis have died since March 2003, and a majority of those deaths were most likely at the hands of other Iraqis. The United States has gone from being a victor in war to an occupier battling a sort of anti-colonial insurgency to a heavily armed intervenor that strongly favors one side - that of the Shiites who run the current government. But, of course, Iraqi Shiites are themselves split into markedly different camps. The U.S. is trying to reach out to Sunni Arabs and bring them into the political process, and these elections could go a long way toward helping that happen. But the Sunnis are a minority and won't win, and it's what happens when disillusionment with politics sets in that is most worrisome.

Tomorrow's voting could be both an exercise in democracy and a match on a gasoline spill.

If Iraqis turn on each other with even more of a vengeance than they already have, the U.S. will be caught in the middle - with Iran, Turkey and neighboring Arab countries playing self-interested and treacherous roles. There will be no question of the U.S. "winning" the war there, or of being "defeated." Iraq is in fact already past that point. It will instead be a complicated and ugly and lethal arena. But none of this has to be inevitable, if enough good will can be found to overcome the gaping divisions. The elections hold out the promise of a major change - what sort of change will be worked out over the months ahead.

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