By JOHN HALL
Media General News Service
October 11, 2005
Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who sat out previous contests, have a chance to show that they can make the democratic process work for them. By turning out in a show of strength at the polls, they can reject their country's new constitution next Saturday or at least make a statement.
If they are successful, the Sunnis will cause a lot of trouble. But a good showing could in the long run be a blow for secularity and compromise in a country that seems increasingly on the path of domination by Kurdish and Shiite rulers, with Iranians hovering closely by.
The Sunnis, even the "moderate" ones, are mistrustful of the process. Some think American military campaigns in the west of the country are being timed to keep them away from the polls. They are threatening to boycott - thereby hurting their own cause.
Others feel they have been tricked. Just weeks before the election, the Iraqi parliament, Shiite-dominated, changed the rules to take back the one crumb they had given the Sunnis - the ability to stop a constitution if two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject it.
The parliament watered that rule down by applying it to two-thirds of registered voters, rather than those who actually turn out. Under pressure from the United States and the United Nations, with the Sunnis threatening a boycott, the Iraqi parliament promptly withdrew the change.
This provision for a minority of its provinces to block the constitution was about the only fillip of recognition the Sunnis have gotten in the constitutional process.
A few weeks ago, according to those on the scene, most Sunnis did not seem to care about the constitutional process. They seemed bent on obstructionism, a general protest boycott and trying to get more seats in the next parliamentary election.
Now it looks like a few of their leaders are seeing a small window of opportunity and are rallying the Sunni people, particularly the large secular population north of Baghdad, into voting down this constitution.
According to news reports, U.S. officials, who want it ratified, fear Shiite violence if the charter is not approved. But writing a new constitution may be better than endless struggle over a bad one.
Many Sunnis opposed the new Iraqi constitution because they believe it would cede control of Iraq's oil wealth eventually to a new consortium of heavily Shiite provinces in the south and the Kurdish-dominated region in the north, leaving the Sunni concentration in the center and west largely destitute.
It looks like a recipe for the dismemberment of Iraq and new, weak breeding grounds for terrorism.
The Shiites and Kurds, however, insist they are just following a time-honored slogan of democracy - that the majority rules and coalitions to form majorities are necessary. The new Iraqi rulers' unspoken mantra is that the Sunnis had it their way for decades when Saddam Hussein ruled; now it is the turn of the oppressed to enjoy the plums.
Early on, however, other countries have discovered that simply allowing the majority to run everything was not sufficient to sustain diverse and complex republics. The U.S. Senate - based not on population but on geographical boundaries - was formed to protect the interests of small states, their mills, their farms and their acreage against the majority will of the more populous states.
Much later, the American Constitution was interpreted by the courts as a living document that protected the civil rights of minorities, very much like the Sunnis in Iraq.
The challenge in Iraq is to develop something a lot better and that will take less than a couple of hundred years for the Sunnis to win equal justice and a share of Iraq's bounty.
Obviously, discussing these issues at length is impossible in the hectic climate of war-torn Iraq.
Warming up for the campaign, local al Qaeda ghouls captured a couple of Iraqis who had given information to U.S. troops, posting a videotape on the Internet of their beheadings. While American troops try to suppress terrorists entering through Syria, British Prime Minister Tony Blair reported evidence of Iran's Revolutionary Guards supplying Hezbollah terrorists against British forces.
To hold a vote on a constitution in these circumstances is, again, something of a miracle. For the Iraqis of all denominations who go to vote, it will be testimony to purple-fingered determination and, indeed, simple courage.