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Sunnis to the rescue
Media General News Service


August 31, 2005

The Sunnis of Iraq now have a better chance than their merciless leader ever gave anyone else.

They have two chances, actually. One comes Oct. 15, when they can defeat the constitution their Shiite masters have written, even though the Sunnis have only 20 percent of Iraq's votes to work with. The Sunnis can pull off this feat by turning out big numbers of voters in the four or more provinces where they have a majority.

Under the rules, if two-thirds vote against the new constitution in any three provinces, it loses. Then, the Iraqis presumably would have to start hammering out another new basic law if civil war doesn't overtake them first.

The more likely course is that the Sunnis in the Oct. 15 referendum will fail to stop the constitution's approval democratically. The reasons are they don't know how to campaign and there are too many knuckleheads in their ranks protesting the whole thing as a plot by America and Israel.

This referendum with its three-province feature could be used as a wedge against the powerful Shiites, who hold 60 percent of the votes. But the Sunnis want to protest and fire guns in the air.

If the Sunnis fail to block the constitution, they will get a second chance at real political action. That will be in the December elections. But they will have to put up some contenders for parliament this time.

The last election the Sunnis sulked on the sidelines. The result was that there are now only17 Sunni members in the 275-seat parliament. This is the ethnic and religious group that used to fill most of Iraq's government, police and military posts under Saddam Hussein.

The next parliament will be critical. The Sunnis must be there for their own salvation. The legislators will fill in the details and connect the dots of the constitution. Whether Iraq becomes a secular Islamic republic or a theocracy run by mullahs like the Iranians next door could well depend on how many Sunnis can get themselves elected to balance off fundamentalists.

The outcome of this struggle could pay huge geopolitical dividends. Iraq, because of its oil reserves, has been at the center of world attention for over a century. But oil is also at the life center of the Iraqis' economy.

The new constitution seems to ease the path for the eventual partition of Iraq by creating the opportunity for one or more provinces to create a semi-autonomous region. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution Iraq, a Shiite religious party with close ties to Iran, has already called for a new federal region in the south made up of half of Iraq's provinces.

To the Sunnis, who are clustered in the center of the country, this is nothing but a plot to gain control of the oil. The new southern region would match a Kurdish region in the north, where the remaining oil is.

That would leave the Sunnis in the middle of the country with a lot of dust and flickering lights and gas lines - and possibly bread lines - in Baghdad and Tikrit.

The last problem with this constitution is the most profound. It is whether the government can uphold its pledge to enforce modern standards of human rights with religious zealots looking over its shoulder.

"We, the Iraqi people now rising from suppression and looking forward to a future in a republican, federal, democratic and pluralist system, have a made a pact to respect the rule of law, reject the politics of aggression, give attention to the rights of women, men and children, spread the culture of diversity and uproot terrorism," says the preamble.

It sounds good.

Yet Article 2 warns that "no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam," and Article 90 creates a supreme federal court on which clerical experts on "sharia law" will sit.

These aren't fatal flaws. A new parliament with a significant number of Sunnis, in concert with the Kurds, could keep the Shiite majority from running amok. But it is slightly ironic that the Sunnis, the people of Saddam Hussein, are now being watched with such hopeful eyes by human rights advocates. They may be the only barrier against Iraq from becoming another Iranian-style mullahcracy.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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