Iraq's upcoming elections will be an event with real potential to turn the tide both in Iraq and in the war on terrorism. As Afghanistan demonstrates, credible elections -- elections that are perceived as free and fair -- can sap the influence of violent extremists whose only claim to power is brute force and intimidation.
That is why the claims of Sunni groups that advocate a boycott of elections must be vigorously rejected. These groups, such as the often-cited Association of Muslim Scholars, fail to disavow violence, yet they claim that the electoral process is somehow rigged against them.
Rarely are their claims scrutinized. Indeed, it is remarkable that in all the commentary and reporting on the Iraqi elections, little has been said about what exactly those elections are for -- and how powers will be shared after the elections even if violence keeps some away from the polls. But there lies the answer to Sunnis who threaten a boycott.
Iraq's interim constitution sets the framework for a transition to an elected government under a permanent constitution by the end of this year. As in any democracy, the majority will govern, but it is untrue that minorities thereby lack influence during this period. Any elected majority must share power to govern post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The country is simply too diverse and intermingled for one group to peacefully control more than a small fraction of territory.
The interim framework accounts for this by incorporating checks and balances and important limitations on the central government in Baghdad. Iraqis are to elect a 275-member National Assembly to serve as both a legislative and constitutional assembly. But the powers of this assembly are to be shared with an independent judiciary and an executive branch that incorporates the views of Iraq's three principal factions.
The selection process for the executive branch is vital. The National Assembly will appoint a three-member presidency council -- with each member receiving at least two-thirds support (or 184 votes) within the assembly. The presidency council must then unanimously appoint a prime minister, who will be the most powerful figure in the Iraqi government, as well as approve cabinet selections and appoint judges to Iraq's highest court.
Thus the center of power in post-election Iraq will enjoy support across the political spectrum. And unlike the transitional model in post-conflict Bosnia, the process in Iraq requires debate among elected representatives, rather than simply locking in ethnic division from the outset, which leaves democracy stillborn. The process for drafting a permanent constitution similarly requires extensive outreach to all Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity or creed.
Additionally, the interim constitution defines and limits the powers of the central government, and it provides for further limits should three or more provinces choose to form a regional government, as the Kurds have done in northern Iraq. Local governmental structures with broad powers of control have already formed in every province of Iraq. They are an unsung success of the post-occupation period. The few areas where these structures have failed include some Sunni provinces west of Baghdad -- not because they are unpopular but because terrorists have kidnapped and murdered local officials.
The present Iraqi government operates under a truncated version of this power-sharing arrangement, and successfully so. Laws enacted by the interim government -- including laws reinstituting the death penalty, offering amnesty for minor crimes and allowing emergency powers in limited circumstances -- have required support from the prime minister, a diverse cabinet and a unanimous presidency council. That council includes Ghazi Yawar, Ibrahim Jafari and Rosh Nouri Shaways, popular Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders, respectively. In addition, new legal provisions are drafted in the Ministry of Justice, which is headed by Malik Douhan Hasan, a distinguished Sunni Muslim who is also head of the Iraqi Bar Association.
There is no question that the interim government has fierce disagreements, as does any government. But outside the media glow, its principals have learned to compromise and forge consensus, even on highly controversial matters such as the laws noted above. It is this cooperative spirit -- and not the latest beheading or car bombing -- that offers a revealing glimpse of the future Iraq.
To be sure, the interim constitution and the post-election road map are not perfect. Disagreement remains over how a permanent constitution will be ratified, and an important compromise on the role of Islam will surely be debated anew by an elected assembly. But this is as it should be. What is important is that broad agreement exists regarding the basic structures of government after elections, and those structures promise substantial influence for minority groups that reject violence and join the political process.
The writer was a legal adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and he helped establish the legal framework for elections in Iraq. He will take questions at 2 p.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com.