THE BUSH administration and much of the world will be riveted by the news from Iraq today as millions of citizens head for some 5,000 polling places -- and insurgents try to kill as many of them as possible. The day may bring a large turnout and relative peace; or horrific violence, such as yesterday's mortar attack on the U.S. Embassy, and a de facto boycott; or, quite possibly, both, in different parts of the country. What is already clear is that the most fateful struggle in Iraq is between the millions willing to risk their lives for a new political order founded on a free vote and an extremist minority whose cause, as succinctly stated by Abu Musab Zarqawi, is "a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it." Today, and in the months after the election, it should be the mission of the United States to support that civil majority and help it defend itself against its totalitarian enemy.
Analysts who reduce the war in Iraq to a nationalist "resistance" against a U.S. occupation should be pressed to explain the events of the past couple of weeks: the brutal murders of election officials; the bombings of schools where voting was due; the bloodcurdling threats against those who approached the polls -- and the extraordinarily courageous response by tens of thousands of Iraqis who presented themselves as candidates or volunteered as poll workers. Most Iraqis would like to see U.S. troops depart (as would most Americans), and that goal gives the violent opposition its most palatable slogan, both at home and abroad. Yet the election campaign has demonstrated that the deeper struggle centers on how the country will be ruled and whether the long-dominant Sunni minority will yield power to the Shiites and Kurds who make up 80 percent of Iraq's population.
Where Has All the Eloquence Gone? (The Washington Post, Jan 30, 2005)
Beyond Tomorrow in Iraq (The Washington Post, Jan 30, 2005)
Zarqawi And the D-Word (The Washington Post, Jan 30, 2005)
Day of Loss (The Washington Post, Jan 27, 2005)
Inauguration Day (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2005)
The Second Term Abroad (The Washington Post, Jan 19, 2005)
The elections will not end that conflict and may even intensify it in the short term. But they should, at least, bring to power a government that is truly representative of the vast majority of Iraqis -- an unprecedented event in the country's troubled history and a rare occurrence anywhere in the Arab Middle East. The Shiite politicians who are likely to be the largest faction in that government have offered assurances that they will respect democratic norms and the rights of minorities. They have included Sunni politicians on their electoral tickets and have indicated that they will be prepared to negotiate the terms of the new constitution with Sunni leaders.
That policy reflects less generosity or idealism than a welcome pragmatism. Accord between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders is essential to the stabilization of Iraq. Still, the Sunni community should not be granted extraordinary concessions in an attempt to calm the insurgency or separate presumed moderates from extremists. Those who counsel such steps or claim that a U.S. withdrawal would open the way for Sunni cooperation only invite a more murderous war against the Iraqi majority that has already embraced the new order. On the contrary, the new government must clearly establish that violence will not be a means of political leverage in a democratizing Iraq.
That will require greater will by Iraqis to defend their new government, but it will also require, for the near future, help from U.S. troops. Much as it resents the foreign presence, the emerging Iraqi majority understands this reality -- which is why the violent "resistance" to U.S. troops now is limited almost entirely to those minority Sunnis who also oppose majority rule. When Iraq's majority, as democratically represented by its new government, asks the United States to agree to a timetable for withdrawal, the Bush administration should acquiesce -- as President Bush himself agreed this month. Until that time, this country has a critical obligation -- both moral and practical -- to continue defending the Iraq composed of those brave citizens who go to the polls today.