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Editorial

Iraq's Electoral Balance

Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page A16

THE 8.5 MILLION Iraqis who turned out to vote two weeks ago have elected a national assembly more suited for the task of nation-building than many would have expected. An alliance backed by the Shiite clergy won a plurality of the vote, and it may command a bare majority in the 275-seat body. But fears that Iraq's new government will be monopolized by pro-Iranian factions bent on religious rule seem unfounded. The Shiite block will be balanced by an almost equal number of secular legislators, and its leaders acknowledge the need to compromise with Kurds, Sunnis and other groups. It is likely that the new prime minister will be secular and Western-educated, and his cabinet may contain some of the same politicians handpicked by the United States for Iraq's first postwar government.

There is a greater danger that Iraq's new regime will collapse than that it will lurch toward extremes. The dire consequences of such a breakup, including partition and aggression by neighbors, should provide a strong incentive to the various parties to stay together, but no one can predict what will flow from the empowerment of Iraq's Shiites and Kurds for the first time in the country's history. It also remains to be seen whether the mandate and political momentum provided by a 58 percent voter turnout will make it any easier for the Iraqi government to combat the Sunni insurgency, which is based in a community that largely didn't vote.

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Though U.S. officials argue that the rebels are weakening, violence in the past two weeks has continued to be severe. Sunni leaders have offered encouraging hints of a willingness to participate in drafting the new constitution, the national assembly's principal task. Yet most don't appear ready to abandon direct or implicit support for violence as a means of defending the privileged position they have long enjoyed. Tellingly, though most Iraqis resent the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops, the Sunnis are virtually alone in calling for their withdrawal. Were the United States to comply, those who wish to forge a new political order in Iraq through civil war rather than elections would have their way.

President Bush's commitment to the Iraqi mission, and the continued sacrifices of young American soldiers and Marines, mean Iraq's newly elected politicians will have a chance to write a constitution that balances majority rule with federalism. The timetable laid out for the new assembly -- a new constitution by August, a referendum in October, general elections in December -- is daunting. It's not easy to imagine how agreement on issues such as the role of Islam in government may be reached, or how it will be possible in just eight months for a new constitution to be approved by majorities in Sunni-dominated provinces. If there are reasons for optimism, they are that Iraq's newly elected leaders appear to understand that the alternative to compromise is catastrophe, and that a decisive majority of Iraqis have, at risk of their lives, chosen to support them.


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