When the votes are counted in Iraq, it's almost certain that the majority of members of the assembly chosen to draft the new constitution will be Shiite Muslims, with a strong representation of Kurds. At that point, they will face a question that they must deal with quickly: What to do about the Sunnis?
It's likely that the nation's Sunni minority will be grossly underrepresented in the outcome of Sunday's elections, in part because of insurgent intimidation and in part because of a deliberate boycott. Sunni resistance to the concept of majority rule is real. Much of it is fed by a fear of Shiite and Kurdish retaliation for centuries of Sunni domination. The Sunni insurgency is not a national resistance movement, despite the efforts of some in the Arab world to portray it that way. But it is a full-fledged guerrilla campaign to deny democracy to Iraq.
Some officials in Washington are contenting themselves with quibbling over what to call the present security emergency in Iraq. This is somewhat like the passengers and crew on the Titanic arguing over whether the ship hit an iceberg or an ice floe. The resistance is coming from a significant portion of Sunnis who, if they are not actively involved in it, are tacitly supporting it.
The new government has two clear courses of action open to it, and a relatively short time to choose between them. The first approach is simple, and I'd advise against it. The Iraqi government could treat this challenge as a civil war and try to crush the insurgency by force of arms alone. We Americans did this once. It worked, but the price was the greatest bloodletting in our nation's history. The majority imposed its will on the minority, and the nation looks the way it does today because of that choice.
The problem with a civil war analogy is that our Civil War was fought in a relative vacuum. With a weak Mexico to our south and a British Canadian colony to our north, we could shed blood with relatively little worry about immediate interference from our neighbors. Iraq does not have that luxury.
The second alternative is to act quickly to bring the homegrown members of the Sunni insurgency back into the tent and to the bargaining table as partners in crafting a constitution. In keeping members of the Sunni resistance out of the process we run the risk of making the same mistake we made in Somalia. By giving the other side no option but to fight, we ensure a long, bloody struggle.
There is good evidence that some of the more competent Baathist leadership on the insurgent side is made up of relatively young mid-level members of the former security services, rather than the discredited members of the Hussein clique. By automatically excluding them from the process, the Iraqi government would give them very little choice but to keep fighting.
By offering an immediate amnesty and allowing for the former mid-level Baathists to form a legitimate party to represent Sunni interests, the new Iraqi leadership can drive a wedge separating nationalist Iraqi Sunnis who might want to participate from the foreign fighters and hard-core former members of the discredited regime.
When interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi made this offer to the Sunni resistance before, the caveats he put on it -- at the insistence of hard-line Shiites and in response to bad advice from some Americans -- were clearly unacceptable: Anyone who had waged a successful attack on the Americans or government forces was automatically excluded from the process. This left the opposition with a choice between continuing to fight and capitulating. The new government has the temporary advantage of being able to ignore such pressure.
The opposition in Iraq is a fragile coalition of forces with incompatible views as to its goals -- other than the goal of getting the Americans out of the country. In fact, some of the most radical members probably want to see us remain, since shooting at Americans is their sole claim to legitimacy. Fracturing that coalition is the key to success.
The writer, a retired Marine Corps officer, has been an adviser to the Defense Department on the creation of Iraqi security forces and has traveled to Iraq in that capacity.