Thursday, October 20, 2005


New York Post:


October 18, 2005 -- EVER since January's parliamentary elections, all those who wish Iraq's democratic enterprise to fail had directed their energies toward one goal: preventing the adoption of the new constitution in the Oct. 15 referendum.

As the day of the vote approached, the tone of the anti-Iraq elements grew more desperate. This was their last chance to break a process that started in June 2004 with the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, continued with local elections in more than 80 percent of the country, saw the formation and registration of dozens of political parties and culminated in the nation's first free elections in January.

Just days before the referendum, the Arab satellite-TV channels that operate as megaphones for terrorists devoted more and more time to desperate pleas by the usual suspects to Arab Sunnis in Iraq to kill the proposed constitution with a no vote.

The most desperate of those calls came from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2. Abandoning his usually arrogant prose, the Egyptian fugitive sounded as if he were begging for a "no" vote. This was echoed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Palestinian-Jordanian terrorist in charge of al Qaeda in Iraq. He called on his supposed Arab Sunni brothers to stay clear of the polling stations lest their participation end "all hope of establishing an Islamic state" in Baghdad.

The jihadists, plus the remnants of pan-Arabism in Iraq, had succeeded in keeping almost half of Arab Sunnis away from the polls in January. But last weekend, the same coalition, despite death threats and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, failed to keep the Sunnis out.

What is now certain is that neither Jihadism, in its many varieties, nor pan-Arabism (in any of its sinister versions), enjoys a popular base in Iraq. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis want to move as far away from despotism as possible, and know they can sort out their differences via elections rather than violence, let alone the civil war that so many of Iraq's enemies have predicted and prayed for since its liberation 30 months ago.

This does not mean that Iraq is out of the woods. The real fight over the future of Iraqi politics is about to begin. Almost all Shiites and Kurds, plus a majority of Arab Sunnis, have reached a consensus on the rules of the game — but each community is divided when it comes to its vision of the new Iraq.

Among Shiites, one could detect a three-way (at least) split.

In one segment are parties, groups and personalities with some ideological, political or personal relation with the present Iranian regime. They don't necessarily want a version of the Iranian mullahrchy for Iraq — but they share the mullahs' fear of democracy. They're also certain to look to Iran as something of a "big brother" to back them in a rough neighborhood. In this segment one finds politicians such as Abdul-Aziz Hakim and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Other Shiites — a variety of moderates — wish Iraq to adopt a market economy, a pro-West foreign policy and a liberal posture on social issues. The best-known figures here include people like Iyad Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Still others wish to revive an illusion initially brought to Iraq by the Ba'ath Party in the late 1940s, when it was an almost exclusively Shiite party claiming to transcend sectarian differences in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. In recent years, some Ba'athist themes have been adopted by the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah, partly in a bid to mask its Iranian identity. Hoping to play a similar hand in Iraq are emulants such as the maverick mullah Muqtada Sadr.

The Kurds are also divided across ideological lines. Massoud Barzani's Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iraq (PDKI) is a traditional conservative outfit depending on clientelism under a varnish of nationalism. Its archrival, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has cultivated a leftist reputation — it is a proud member of the Socialist International. And smaller Kurdish parties reject the secularism of both the PDKI and the PUK in the name of a conservative version of Islam.

The picture is equally mixed for the Arab Sunnis, who account for 15 percent of the population. The largest Arab Sunni group at this time may consist of the branches of the Muslim Brotherhood who have coalesced in the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). But the remnants of the Ba'ath, now newly reorganized, may also attract some support, especially among the purged military and civil-service personnel. A third Sunni strand, smaller at present, consists of moderate conservative or socialist groups with a base in Baghdad and Mosul.

With the rules of the game in place, there no longer is any need for grand coalitions among parties that espouse different, at times conflicting, ideologies. The next step is the Dec. 15 general election, an historic opportunity to provide the first accurate photography of the nation's political and ideological divisions.

With less than two months to Election Day, many parties and personalities may not be able to market themselves in time, giving their better-known rivals an automatic advantage.

Thus it may be necessary for some coalition-building across broad ideological and political lines. At least three big lists could be imagined, cutting across Sunni-Shiite and Kurdish-Arab lines.

One list could represent the various Islamists. That would require some parties to distance themselves from Tehran. A second could unite the various secular and pro-market parties with bases within all religious and ethnic communities. But that would require the Kurdish parties to tone down their ethnic profile and seek allies on the basis of ideology and political programs in Shiite and Arab Sunni communities as well as smaller groups, notably Christians, that account for 5 percent of the population.

It is time for Iraq's new leadership to move beyond sectarian and ethnic considerations and envisage a pluralist polity in which people unite on the basis not of who they are, but of what they intend to do together.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.


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