Building on Iraq's Election

Editorial

New York Times

February 7, 2005

Iraq's historic election left the country with a problem that everyone saw coming but no one took serious steps to try to address. Instead of dealing with the alienation of the Sunni community before the vote, leaders of the Shiite majority, both religious and secular, insisted on holding the election first and working to bring the minority Sunnis - who mostly stayed away from the polls - in later.

Later has arrived. The Sunni boycott means that the Shiites and the Kurdish parties will be significantly overrepresented in a new government. That carries its own dangers. If either group overplays its already strong hand, the vision of a peaceful, democratic and unified Iraq evoked by the election will quickly shatter. That would poorly repay those voters for their bravery and determination. It would also leave American troops fighting a prolonged, and perhaps unwinnable, counterinsurgency war in the Sunni provinces. The victorious parties must accept that winning back the Sunni provinces is a political challenge they must take on themselves, not a military chore that can be handed off to American troops.

There is some hopeful talk coming from Iraqi political leaders of all communities as they float at least tentative ideas about possible cooperation in writing Iraq's new constitution. This talk flows in part from the arithmetic of constitutional ratification. A two-thirds majority vote against the constitution in any 3 of Iraq's 18 provinces could block final approval. That provision was originally designed to protect the three Kurdish-majority provinces. But now it forces attention to the concerns of the three Sunni-Arab-majority provinces as well. Those provinces are certain to be severely underrepresented in the newly elected constitutional assembly.

The final allocation of National Assembly seats won't be known for a while. But one certain result is that Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite majority will now wield decisive political power. We hope Iraq's Shiite leaders understand the difference between leadership and dominance, and treat other groups better than they were treated during the long decades of Sunni dictatorship.

The slate of Shiite religious parties that almost certainly drew the most votes is unlikely to be able to rule alone, since it will take two-thirds of the new assembly to choose a new government and adopt a new constitution. The coalition partners available to them will include the secular Shiite slate led by the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi; the bloc formed by the two main Kurdish parties; and a scattering of Sunnis and independents. The wisest course would be to reach out widely, leaving as few groups as possible feeling left out and embittered. In a country experimenting with democracy for the first time, the concept of a loyal opposition hasn't had enough time to take root.

For their part, Sunni leaders need to begin making concrete proposals about how their voices and votes can be added to the constitutional debate. Sunnis - not Shiites, Kurds or the American Embassy - should be deciding which Sunnis to include and how. Once this happens, Shiites and Kurds should respond generously, recognizing that anything that draws Sunnis away from the insurgency and helps preserve a unified Iraq is in their interests as well.