Monday, October 17, 2005

A Slim Reed

Iraq’s fate will be determined in the next 90 days. With the constitution apparently approved, the country’s political process under American occupation moves to the parliamentary elections. During this time, the world will see if the victorious Kurds and Shi’ites are willing to acknowledge the legal and religious rights of the Sunni minority that persecuted them for many decades. It will be a tough job all around. Eighty years of Sunni repression culminating in Saddam Hussein’s brutal, megalomaniacal dictatorship leaves the Kurds and Shi’ites with little reason to be charitable.

By tradition and practice, retribution has been an unpleasant reality in the Middle East. Iraq’s former leaders, mostly Sunni, have much to answer for. The Kurds and Shi’ias have old scores to settle and have been adamant in their disdain for Sunni demands for recognition. Shia’s have, in fact, shown restraint in not responding to provocations (which I believe are the mostly the work of foreign fighters and Sunni extremists trying to provoke civil war). Shia leaders have wisely restrained their masses but not their ambitions. They and their Kurdish allies have created a constitution that marginalizes the Sunnis.

Kurds and Shi’ites want the Sunnis restrained to prevent repetition of the past decades repression, a legitimate concern, and want to make sure that the Sunni Ba’athists will have neither the means (army) nor opportunity (strong central government) to take complete control over a unified Iraq. The Sunnis now look toward an uncertain or no future as a dispossessed minority without resources, menaced by Iran and its Iraqi Shia allies. With no future, death in the service of one’s family, clan and tribe has a grimly inescapable logic.

The best outcome of the constitutional referendum would have been its defeat. A defeat would have demonstrated to the Sunnis that the political process can serve them as well as their opponents. Passage with such a polarized electorate demonstrates deep, deep fissures that must be addressed if Iraq is ever to have peace. The one positive result of the referendum was the last minute agreement to allow immediate amendments to the constitution, giving the Sunnis some opportunity to think they can still influence that document.

The world will know the results in the next 90 days as Iraq elects a new parliament and begins to consider Sunni demands. Even with continued Sunni participation, they will still be a minority in a parliament where the Shia’s are the majority. The world can only hope that the Shia’s and Kurds will be able to accommodate their Sunni brethren. If not, the war continues.

Ironically, the Shi’ite-Sunni split is not among the people but rather between leaders and groups. Individual members of both sects have co-existed peacefully for decades. Shia-Sunni friendships and marriages are common in Iraq, as are mixed neighborhoods. Or were. More recent reports tell of ethnic cleansing as both groups seek safety among their own; individuals in mixed marriages are finding themselves ever more isolated. But the integrated tradition suggests that the hostility is not inherent among individuals.

More than anything, Iraqis must come to terms with their past if they are to have a future. Years of Ba’athist dictatorship have scarred their society and deformed the political process. A long history of repression and fear must be exhumed, examined and re-interred in the national consciousness. The Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, eastern Europe and Latin America offer models of that opportunity. If Iraq’s new leaders are truly interested in building a nation, they will demand such an accounting. They can satisfy their need to respond to their former oppressors with justice, rather than with a new round of repression and payback.

But that will be a task for the new government. Iraq must first hold parliamentary elections to see if the Sunnis have any hope for the political process and if the new parliament can form a government that offers the Sunni meaningful participation. The outcome is far from certain.


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