The San Jose Mercury News

Rush to Stabilize May Backfire in Polarized Iraq

Even as the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq reached 2,000 last week, the administration continued to hope that the passage of Iraq's constitution and the recent opening of Saddam Hussein's trial would begin to provide redemption for its much-maligned foreign policy.

Since Saddam was toppled more than two years ago, the Bush administration has been waiting anxiously for both events as potent signals that Iraq was moving past dictatorship and toward democracy. The hope was the two events would provide inspiration not just in Iraq, but also in the entire Middle East, propelling people to seek more democracy in their own countries and to begin seeing some good out of a war most of them opposed.

Instead, both the Iraqi referendum on the constitution and Saddam's trial are likely to intensify the anger between Iraq's Sunnis and its Shiite and Kurdish populations and the dismay in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds. And that means we face the possibility not only of more sectarian strife in Iraq, but also increased chances that other countries and groups will join the fray as providers of arms and even fighters.

The irony of the Iraqi Constitution, which passed with 79 percent of the vote, is that while it would appear to be a critical step toward democracy, from the point of view of limiting sectarian conflict, it would have probably been better had the document been defeated.

Sunnis, many of whom believe the constitution discriminates against their interests and who voted in large numbers against it, would have at least gained more faith in the process. Shiites—who constitute a majority of the Iraqi population -- and Kurds, meanwhile, might have been more willing to compromise with the Sunnis in a new round of negotiations to amend the constitution after December's National Assembly elections.

Irregularity Suspicions

Instead, there is prevalent suspicion of irregularities among Sunnis. Early reports of 99 percent approval in some provinces were reminiscent of the habitual 99 percent wins of the region's dictators that the United States was hoping to undermine through the Iraqi example. And a statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the votes were even counted that the constitution ``probably passed'' played into existing skepticism about the fairness of the elections.

Even if the election were considered fair, the fact that the results were so imbalanced—with Shiites and Kurds generally voting yes and the majority of Sunnis voting no—would surely empower the groups in drawing support along sectarian lines.

Some Sunnis, even skeptical ones, might be drawn into the political process by the chance to win changes in the constitution if they can elect enough members to the National Assembly, which will negotiate amendments as part of a deal made right before the election. But Sunnis will still remain a minority in the Assembly and there are no guarantees they will win more favorable terms than they did in the drafting of the existing constitution.

It probably didn't help sectarian strains—in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East—that Saddam Hussein's trial began as votes were being counted. Hated by many who suffered his ruthlessness, a group that includes Iraq's Shiites and Kurds and many Kuwaitis, he is still admired by many in and out of Iraq. (In my 2004 survey of public opinion in Arab countries, more people in Jordan, one of America's closest Arab allies, identified Saddam as the ``most admired world leader'' than any other person outside their own country.)

Methods in Question

More important, even among the large number in the Arab and Muslim world and among Iraq's Sunni Arabs who didn't admire the former Iraqi ruler, many question the method in which a sitting Arab ruler was removed, and the legitimacy of the institutions that will try him in Iraq.

International human rights groups had proposed an international tribunal for Saddam and warned against a ``victors' court.'' Those groups, including Human Rights Watch, worry that the requirements for conviction under rules set up for his trial are far less stringent than acceptable international standards.

Arab groups, meanwhile, have expressed doubt about the fairness of a trial that takes place in the shadow of American forces. The court did agree, after one day of the trial, to recess for a month to address concerns that the defense attorneys had been hurried and needed more time to prepare their cases, but that won't address other questions of fairness. In the end, it is doubtful that the trial will change many minds and more likely that it will continue to fan sectarian anger when it resumes Nov. 28.

How much worse could sectarian violence in Iraq get? The worst-case scenario is an all-out civil war leading to the breakup of the country into three states along the lines of the dominant strains. But that danger remains limited in the foreseeable future.

For one thing, there is much population overlap in many parts of Iraq and significant intermarriage, especially among Sunni and Shiite Arabs&3151;although those factors are not, in themselves, enough of a barrier to division. For another, each group has much to lose if it were to move rapidly toward independence.

Certainly Sunni Arabs would have the most to lose, especially as Iraq's rich oil fields are primarily in the Shiite areas in the south and in heavily Kurdish areas in the north. Having dominated Iraqi politics for so long, Sunni Arabs would find it hard to swallow being left with a shrunken and resource-deprived state.

The Shiites would lose the benefits of a unified Iraq in which, as the majority faction, they finally would have the biggest say. Moreover, a breakup of Iraq might push them closer to Iran strategically, which is not a happy outcome for most Shiites. Iraqi Shiites do have religious affinity with Iran. They are, however, also Arab and Iraqi and feel the force of ancient rivalries between Arabs and Persians, as well as the newer Iran-Iraq rivalries that drove the two countries into a bloody war in the 1980s.

Even the Kurds, who clearly see themselves as an independent people worthy of a state, have pushed for gradual autonomy in large part to assuage strong opposition to Kurdish independence especially in Turkey and Iran, which are fearful of secession movements among their own Kurdish populations.

But even if an all-out civil war is avoided, any escalation of sectarian violence could wreak havoc in Iraq and throughout the region.

The intensification of conflict would have two immediate consequences. The first would be the increased ability of the Sunni insurgency to recruit more support in the Arab and Muslim world, where Sunnis are the majority. This could be the battle cry that helps groups like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia to vastly increase the number of foreign recruits in Iraq. Zarqawi has been trying to boost those numbers by targeting Shiites in the hopes of creating a backlash against Sunnis. But so far, the best estimates are that foreigners constitute only about 10 percent of the insurgency.

Drawing Others In

The second consequence would be the likelihood of drawing other governments in the region into Iraq. If Sunnis are on the losing end of sectarian conflict in Iraq, it would be hard for many Arab and Muslim countries to sit on the sidelines.

And the Iraqi factions' needs for garnering allies and supplies would open up new intervention opportunities for interested neighboring states. That includes Iran, which has already been accused by Britain and the United States of intervening in Iraq, and which could see Iraq as a good site to act out its anger at European and American demands that it alter its nuclear activities.

It also includes Syria, which has been accused by the United States of allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq and which is also increasingly at odds with the United States and others over a just-released U.N. report that implicated some of the country's top leaders in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Those threats—of a more violent Iraq and a destabilized Middle East—are the reasons most international actors, including the United States, are trying so hard to keep Iraq unified and its factions talking. But the rush to vote on a constitution that divides more than it unites and a controversial trial that is sure to make hourly headlines in the Arab press may achieve the opposite result.