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Richard Cohen

Unfinished Story in Iraq

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page A17

When the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad's Firdaus Square, the next day's American newspapers reported some pretty rhapsodic stuff -- that the war had entered the "final phase" (Baltimore Sun) or that Iraqis were "euphoric" (Boston Globe) or that the crowds were chanting "Bush is great" (Los Angeles Times). On TV, some anchors compared the event to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, although everyone, including the Bush administration, threw in the usual caveats about the war not being quite over. Nearly two years later, it still isn't.

The toppling of Hussein's statue that wonderful April day in 2003 made for good TV and the usual pronouncements that something "historic" had happened. But it turned out to be more noteworthy for what the camera did not capture: the political culture of the crowd. Iraq was not East Germany or Romania but its own place, where, among other things, a minority (Sunnis) had long ruled a majority (Shiites) and where -- not that the two are connected -- a substantial number of people quickly applied themselves to the looting of the nation.

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It would be both wrong and in the worst taste to make light of what happened in Iraq on Sunday -- a stunning voter turnout that confirms everything President Bush and others have said about the universal yearning for freedom. Give people a chance to have some sort of say in their governance -- to make even a particle of difference in their own lives -- and they will seize it. This is particularly the case if voting is new to them -- a delight in a life that has offered few to none. It was, truly, one hell of a day.

This time, as with the toppling of the statue and the granting of sovereignty to Iraq last June, officialdom again uttered all the right caveats. This time, though, they weren't just protecting themselves for the record but stating an appalling truth: This thing, the war and what followed, has turned out to be a lot harder than anyone thought. Even the turnout was something of a surprise. Just last week I asked one of the architects of the war what sort of day the United States would have on Sunday. He offered no prediction, but his demeanor gave him away. He was steeled for failure.

That failure may yet materialize. The vote, while huge in Shiite areas, reportedly was depressed in Sunni regions. That may be because voters were intimidated or because they followed the dictates of their leaders and boycotted a process whose winner, in ethnic terms, was a foregone conclusion. The Shiites, with about 60 percent of the population, are going to control the new government. But the question is not whether the Shiites will win it's the extent to which the Sunnis lose.

One part of democracy is easy to master: winning. It's losing that's hard. If the loss is total or feared to be -- not just some political post but your very way of life -- you might think that your only recourse is violence. If the Sunnis fear that their loss will be absolute, they will not join Iraq's emerging civil society -- and so far they apparently haven't. In that case, the insurgency will continue, tolerated if not supported by the Sunnis. Those willing to fight and die for the new Iraq will be Arab Shiites and ethnic Kurds -- and the latter only for their own corner of the world. This is a prescription for civil war.

Some modesty is in order. Every four years, my colleagues and I go to Iowa and New Hampshire to cover the early presidential contests. They are both small states, and sometimes it seems that every other person is either a pollster or a political operative. Yet with all the polling, with reporters interviewing everyone in sight, these states always surprise. If we cannot know Iowa, how can we possibly know Iraq?

We cannot. We should not assume that a universal yearning for freedom will translate into a universal respect for minority rights. We should not necessarily assume, either, that what we call freedom was not composed, partly or mostly, of a desire by Shiites to rule Iraq for the first time. Much depends on the Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and he, for the time being at least, will not even talk to the American authorities. The ayatollah, maybe more than we, also made history on Sunday. We just don't know what it is.

cohenr@washpost.com


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