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The Sunni Angle

November 16, 2004 |
We cannot afford a Palestinized Iraq in which Sunnis are prepared to sacrifice and die in large numbers for a cause they have no hope of winning in the short term.
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The U.S. military, with help from Kurdish-dominated Iraqi national guard units, has done its part in taking Fallujah. But the war against the insurgency will not be won by military means alone. The ultimate objective is political: drawing Iraq's Sunni Arabs into elections and the constitutional process that will follow. The only route to a peaceful Iraq runs through negotiations -- and those must include all the country's major groups, not only those who have already agreed to attempt federal democracy.

Basic order is the necessary prerequisite for both elections and a national debate about the shape of Iraq's future government. That means keeping up the pressure on the insurgents, who demonstrated their mobility by opening up a front in Mosul even as Fallujah fell.

This may well require more troops, in which case it would be a historic failure not to provide them. President Bush has said he is prepared to spend his newly won political capital -- and it is immeasurably more important that he spend it on our national security and the safety of our troops in the field than on Supreme Court nominations.

The U.S. is fighting not one but two distinct insurgencies. The more numerous is a mobilized movement of Iraqi Sunnis, some of them former Baath Party members, and all beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein's pro-Sunni policies. Motivated as much by a desire to dominate Iraq again as by nationalist, anti-American ideology, these insurgents can rely on near universal sympathy in the Sunni triangle. They will fight until it becomes clear that they cannot make the Americans leave and that they have more to gain by joining the political process than by keeping up an indefinite and ultimately suicidal civil war.

At the same time, foreign jihadis in Iraq form a separate insurgency with their own, different motivations. Although they have been used by the local Sunni insurgents to do the dirty work of suicide bombings, and although they claim to be in Iraq to help liberate it, they really seek to make the country into the new Afghanistan: a venue for quasi-permanent holy war against the latest foreign invader. The jihadi insurgents cannot be reasoned with and will never give up. They will leave only when the local Sunnis actively kick them out, and even then they will not go without a fight.

Right now, in the wake of Fallujah, there is still a chance to split these two insurgencies by coaxing the local Sunnis into the political process with guarantees of full participation and a fair share of the state's resources. The Israeli-Palestinian experience of the last decade demonstrates what will happen if no political option is held out to the Sunnis. When a political resolution appears possible, nationalist forces can be prevailed upon to hold their fire. When the political option fails or disappears, though, the Islamists step into the vacuum, and are capable of carrying much of the population with them.

We cannot afford a Palestinized Iraq in which Sunnis are prepared to sacrifice and die in large numbers for a cause they have no hope of winning in the short term. The Sunnis need a political prize now, while there is still some difference between what they want and the apocalyptic jihad sought by the foreigners.

The absence of a credible Sunni leadership makes this problem particularly difficult -- but elections are part of the answer. If the Sunnis participate, then the leadership they choose may be able to function as a kind of proxy for those who are presently leading the insurgency. Sunni clerics are making this difficult by calling for a boycott, but perhaps they too could be induced to change their tune by appropriate overtures from within the Shiite clerical community.

Whether we like it or not, the current Sunni insurgents and the people who are sympathetic to them must be represented in the political process that will follow the elections. The insurgents have blood on their hands, but they will have much more if the fight continues. They are fully capable of soldiering on and doing major damage, especially given their willingness to deploy the suicide tactics of the jihadis.

So it is crucial that elections take place in Sunni areas, not just the comparatively safe Shiite and Kurdish areas. If a Sunni boycott looks inevitable, or if the security situation has not yet stabilized, then serious consideration should be given to delaying the elections. The way to do so would be to put the point bluntly (if privately) to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has been the strongest pro-elections voice for the past 18 months: We will have elections if you insist on them, but you will bear responsibility if these elections generate not reconciliation, but permanent civil war. An appropriate statement by Ayatollah Sistani, in partnership with the U.N., to the effect that elections cannot yet be held, would do the trick.

In the event that elections do take place without significant Sunni participation, Kurdish and Shiite parties would be well advised to over-represent Sunnis on their own electoral lists, in the hopes of giving Sunnis a voice in government despite their self-exclusion. But politics being what they are, Sunni politicians elected in effect by Kurds or Shiites will have a hard time presenting themselves to disaffected Sunnis as legitimate spokesmen.

Once elections are over, the hard job of negotiating a constitutional settlement can proceed meaningfully only if all Iraqis have a voice; cutting out one faction will drive them into continued violence for lack of a better option. It has been a major boon in the last several months to find Muqtada al-Sadr exploring politics in lieu of violence, and it is to be hoped that Sunni insurgents will follow the same route if they are militarily defeated as al-Sadr's militia was in Najaf.

A successful constitution would itself embody guarantees for all the major groups in the country. Under the label of federalism, the Kurds will get the de facto regional autonomy they have long sought; the fact that their light infantry has been the only effective Iraqi fighting force thus far shows that no one can take it from them. Shiites, led by the religious parties likely to win at least a plurality and perhaps a clear majority in the elections, will get a significant role for Islam in the context of democratic government. The Sunnis, for their part, will need enforceable promises of a fair share of state resources, so that Shiites and Kurds do not marginalize them as the Baath once did to all non-Sunnis.

With the U.S. providing security, a brokered deal among the various political elites, elections, and respect for basic civil rights, Iraq would have a shaky but recognizable proto-democracy. This scenario is optimistic, but not impossible. More important, there is no other way out, either for the United States, the region, or the 27 million Iraqis whose future lies in the balance.

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