By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
December 23, 2005
"If ever there was a time for patient effort to allow the embassy team, the U.S. military ... and the U.S. NGOs that are working in the country to try and help the Iraqis reach an inclusive solution, this is it," said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The tumultuous few days since Iraqis elected their first permanent government give hints of the kind of potential crises to come.
Early results suggest that Shiite-led parties organized along religious and ethnic lines easily outpolled secular groupings, a result that experts said demonstrates something about the overall Iraqi political environment.
"Iraqis were presented with a clear alternative of a nonsectarian, pan-ethnic, Iraqi identity alliance, and they rejected it," said Larry Diamond, an adviser to the former U.S. occupation authority in Iraq and now senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. That is likely to embolden the already dominant Shiite groups, Diamond said, leading them further toward establishing a semiautonomous region in the oil-rich south like the one Kurds already enjoy in Iraq's oil-rich north - an outcome possible under the country's current constitution, created without significant Sunni participation.
Sunni Arabs, who under that scenario could be left with the country's oil-poor center and west, are deeply disturbed by that possibility, which in part is prompting the protests against the vote and calls for new elections.
Outright Sunni rejection of the new government could spell disaster in the form of civil war, experts warned. But most considered that to be unlikely - the Sunnis already tried sitting out of the political process once, and many considered that a mistake.
Nevertheless, Sunni leaders may need to support the protests for understandable political reasons, said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence officer who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
"There is such militancy and suspicion within the Sunni Arab community that acceptance on the part of certain leaders would diminish their credibility and, in some cases, place cooperative leaders in very real danger of assassination," he said.
The United States can help matters by pressing Iraqi election officials to thoroughly investigate the allegations, and perhaps even back calls for new elections in some regions, experts said, but in the end the Sunnis, who comprise 20 percent of the population, are going to have to accept their diminished political status.
"No matter how many of them vote or how fair the vote is, they're always going to come out in a small minority," said Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The decision is really on their part ... are they going to accept their minority status?"
That could be difficult for many Sunnis to concede. Not only would they be losing the supremacy they enjoyed for decades, they will have a weaker hand on such critical issues as how Iraq's oil revenue will be distributed and the role of religion.
Some of those issues will be fiercely fought over in the coming months when, under a prior agreement, the new government debates amendments to the constitution that must be approved by a simple majority of the assembly and by a popular referendum.
"Assuming that people can accept the broad outcome of the election as more or less valid ... the really big next question in my judgment is whether or not the Shiites will be open to reopening the most offensive parts of the constitution from the Sunni point of view," said Susan Rice, senior fellow on foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. A procedure for amending the constitution was added at Sunni insistence before the charter referendum was held in October.
"The question is whether the Shiites who were elected will go for it," she said. "If they don't, then we have a big issue."
At the same time, the newly elected Sunnis find themselves in the awkward position of needing the good offices of those they have condemned as occupiers, said Diamond.
"The profound irony is that now, though they are fiercely anti-American ... it is now the Americans and the American ambassador that they depend on to extract concessions from the Shiite parties," he said.
All of which puts the Americans in a tricky position, Diamond and others said: how much to help the Sunnis, many of whom have been violently battling Americans at the expense of Shiite and Kurdish groups that have been America's military allies.
It's not an impossible task, analysts suggested: The Shiites may recognize it is in their interest to give up some oil revenue to purchase regional stability, while the Sunnis, with few alternatives save insurgency and a painful memory of the consequences of sitting out the political process, may be more willing to cooperate.
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