A Sunni Role Is Essential in New Iraq

Although George W. Bush and John Kerry, last year’s Democratic presidential challenger, differed sharply over Iraq policy, their main disagreements concerned the past, not the future. But now, as elections approach in Iraq, the US must rethink its planned approach.

Beyond the perennial debate over coalition troop strength, three issues stand out in Iraq. First is the January 30 election. Second is the Iraqi constitution, which is supposed to be written by the end of the year. Third—and perhaps the biggest question for the US, UK and other coalition partners—is to begin developing an exit strategy. On each of these points, current Bush administration policy is substantially off the mark.

Consider the elections. While the 80 per cent of the Iraqi population made up of Shia and Kurds is enthusiastic about the poll, Sunni Arab Iraqis are not. They feel largely disenfranchised by recent political trends in Iraq; many of their key politicians are not participating; and most of their main cities are very unstable. Turnout among Sunni voters, therefore, is likely to be low; and as voting is being conducted nationally, rather than provincially, that surely means few Sunnis will be elected to the new parliament. This outcome will probably breed further anger among Iraq’s Sunni population, meaning more sympathy and recruits for the insurgency.

Even at this late stage, a one-time postponement of the elections would be desirable—that is, if Shia and Kurd leaders came to that conclusion themselves and if Sunni politicians pledged in return that they would run in the delayed elections. With or without a postponement, Iraq’s electoral system should be modified to ensure that a certain minimum—at least 15 per cent—of all seats go to Sunnis in this election.

That said, the election timetable is unlikely to be altered. After the poll, the US and other interested outside parties should counsel the winners to accord Sunni politicians the rough equivalent of 15-20 per cent of government ministries and a similar percentage of seats in whatever parliamentary body is assigned to draft the new Iraqi constitution.

On a new constitution, a critical issue is the allocation of oil revenues. Traditionally, oil has been viewed as a national asset in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq. But last year’s deliberations among Iraqi politicians and different ethnic groups before the June 28 transfer of sovereignty changed this approach. Now, oil resources are largely viewed as the property of whatever provincial government sits atop them. Once again, to many Sunnis, everything seems to conspire against them. Virtually all Iraq’s oil in the south is in Shia lands. In the northern fields around Mosul and Kirkuk, Kurds and Sunnis and other ethnic groups share jurisdiction over the resources. But Kurds resent the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime forced them to give up a lot of property to the Sunnis, and have been recently pushing them off land. If this continues, Sunnis could be left with little political power, little oil revenue, Iraq’s least fertile land, the most dangerous cities and scant hope for the future. This situation would be largely the fault of their own kin – Mr Hussein and many leaders of the current resistance. But that fact would do little to soften the pain.

To redress the situation, the constitution should ensure that a substantial part of the nation’s oil revenue—50 per cent or more—be viewed as national property to be distributed relatively equitably on a per person basis among Iraq’s various regions and groups. The sooner this benchmark can be decided on, the better.

Finally comes the question of how long the US and other outsiders should stay. With the deteriorating situation in Iraq, it is hard to believe international troops should conduct a long stabilisation mission of the Bosnia variety. Indeed our presence, while currently necessary, is also helping to fuel the insurgency. James Baker, the former US secretary of state, recently suggested that Washington should soon announce a withdrawal plan.

Complete withdrawal would be irresponsible in the near future. But by mid-2006 or so, Iraq should have had its elections, written and approved its constitution and had most of its main security forces trained by its coalition allies. By then, the US and UK and other foreign troops should be able more than to halve their strength and reduce the prominence of their role in Iraq. Although Mr Bush has studiously avoided any such promises of cutbacks, it would help the cause to say—soon—that America intends to reduce forces dramatically by next year. Some of these ideas run directly counter to Bush administration policy, but that policy is not working. It is time to question basic assumptions rather than to reinforce failure.