Iraq's Election Result

Thursday, December 22, 2005

IT DIDN'T TAKE long for Iraq's inspiring election day last week to give way to renewed violence, bitter charges of fraud and threats of even bloodier sectarian conflict in the months ahead. Before turning to those sobering developments, however, it's worth taking note of what happened last Thursday: Nearly 10.9 million Iraqis turned out to vote around the country, up from 9 million in January's election and 9.8 million in the October constitutional referendum. The turnout rate, about 70 percent, was considerably higher than that in any modern American election; it was easily the most democratic poll in the history of the Arab Middle East. Iraqis, if not all of their leaders, have unmistakably chosen to try democracy as a means of constructing a new political order.

The results, however, may make it more difficult to build that order than the Bush administration hoped. The Shiite religious coalition that dominates the present government appears to have obtained a slightly lower percentage of the vote than in January, because of much greater Sunni participation. But it will still have by far the largest block of seats in the new parliament, and perhaps a narrow majority. Kurdish and Sunni parties appear to have won just under 20 percent of the vote each, in keeping with their share of the population. That means Sunni seats in the legislature will more than double compared with the present transitional body.

The big losers were secular and nonsectarian parties, such as that led by former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. Iraqis "preferred to vote for their ethnic and sectarian identity," as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad put it. The problem with this result, Mr. Khalilzad candidly added, is that "for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic cooperation."

The opening round of what is likely to be a prolonged post-election power struggle among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds was discouraging. Sunni leaders and Mr. Allawi charged that they had been robbed of votes, in Baghdad and elsewhere, by Shiite-orchestrated fraud. Though election officials conceded some irregularities, the Sunni complaint appeared driven less by facts than by the arrogant sense of entitlement that continues to infect that community. Unwilling to accept a share of power equal to their proportion of the population, Sunni leaders now threaten another boycott of the political system and an escalation of their war against the government and U.S. forces.

Shiite religious leaders, bolstered by their strong showing, may not be obliged to heed even reasonable Sunni demands in order to name a president and prime minister. The leading Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, remains determined to establish a nine-province Shiite ministate in southern Iraq; its leader has hinted at escalating a dirty war against the Sunni resistance spearheaded by the party's own death squads. Kurdish leaders appear willing to collaborate in Iraq's de facto partition so they can establish their own ministate in the north.

Some Shiite leaders, including the Supreme Council's likely candidate for prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, appear open to building a broad government coalition including Sunnis, in the hope of defusing the insurgency. Yet the election results mean that such an accord, requiring deep political concessions by all ethnic and sectarian groups, will be possible only through forceful and skilled U.S. intervention. Mr. Khalilzad seems to understand what must be done: He has spoken out in recent days not only about the need for compromise but also for steps to neutralize the ethnic militias now pushing toward civil war. The next few months are likely to determine whether Iraq tips into that war or toward a national compromise based on democracy. Though it cannot necessarily determine the path Iraqis will take, the Bush administration must use all the leverage it can muster in favor of those who chose democracy.

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