Don’t Ignore Sunni Triangle

Peter Khalil
Peter Khalil Visiting Fellow, Saban Center at Brookings

January 31, 2005

US hopes for a more stable Iraq are riding on the legitimacy of a democratically elected Iraqi government emerging from the fire and blood of last night’s election. The Bush administration views elections as the key political element in the campaign against the mainly Sunni insurgency.

Yet the elections will not succeed in calming the violence unless Iraqis themselves perceive the new government as legitimate. And among the requirements of legitimacy, one of the most critical is that the Sunni population must have participated and be represented on an equal footing with all of the other ethnicities in the country.

For this reason, the US is courting danger in leaning too heavily on these Iraqi national elections as a solution to the insurgency. Because the administration, the interim Iraqi government, and key Shia political leaders insisted on holding elections on January 30, only 15 of the 18 Iraqi provinces participated relatively free of intimidation. There was only limited participation in towns and cities in the Sunni triangle such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit.

The lack of Sunni Arab participation in adequate numbers is akin to leaving Florida out of the US elections. A small Sunni representation in the new national assembly relative to the fact they make up to 20 per cent of the Iraqi population will only serve to fuel the insurgency and give it a potent new weapon in the propaganda war. The slogan of “disenfranchisement through occupation and sham elections” could solidify some of the more disparate insurgent groups into an insurgency of broader and more credible nationalist appeal, at least among the Sunni population. This is the exact opposite result of the administration’s desire to bring disaffected Sunnis into the political process.

If the majority of Sunni Arabs find themselves excluded from this political process, last night’s elections may only speed the way to an eventual dismemberment of Iraq. Since ministers in the new Iraqi government do not have to be members of the national assembly, one hopeful sign that civil war may be avoided is the willingness of Shia leaders such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim to appoint Sunnis to cabinet posts even if Sunni parties only win nominal representation. In addition, assurances that Sunni leaders, clerics and jurists will be part of the constitutional drafting committee is a critical element in averting a dismemberment of Iraq.

Ensuring Sunni Arab participation in the political process over the next 12 months in the hope of weakening the insurgency is also tied to progress in security and economic reconstruction. The US still finds itself in the middle of a tough three-step process on all of these fronts. US and Iraqi forces have already completed most of the initial security tasks of retaking Fallujah, pockets of Ramadi, and about 20 other towns in the Sunni triangle and returning them to Iraqi government control.

The next step, however, is by far the greater challenge. US and Iraqi forces must hold and stabilise those towns and cities, establishing basic law and order, make progress with reconstruction efforts in electricity and water infrastructure, and defeat any insurgents who remain or try to return.

Finally, the majority of Sunnis still remain to be convinced that these elections will have given them genuinely fair and significant representation in the federal government and will therefore serve their interests. Sunni Arabs appointed to key ministries, tackling high unemployment rates in the Sunni triangle with job programs, and public education efforts by the Iraqi Electoral Commission are critical to promoting this belief.

Still, over the next 12 months political developments alone will not defeat the insurgency. Terrorist violence and insurgent activity will likely continue after these elections. The insurgents will do everything they can to derail a political process, which will deal their movement a serious blow if most Sunni Iraqis eventually come to see it as representative, inclusive and therefore legitimate.

If the newly elected Iraqi government can overcome these short-term obstacles with the support of the coalition and pave the way for an inclusive political process, the insurgency will eventually lose steam. Sound economic and social reconstruction efforts, together with continued joint counter-insurgency operations by the US military and the Iraqi army and police, will serve to weaken the insurgency over the following 12-24 months. By early 2007, it should be possible to contain the insurgency to the point where the US administration can begin contemplating a large-scale withdrawal of US troops.

Again, legitimacy will be key to accomplishing this long-term goal. Thus, Washington must resist the temptation to try to control the political process which will be guided by the new Iraqi government. It should focus on maintaining sound structural foundations and underlying principles, and not supporting personalities who may be in or out of favour.

A democratically elected Iraqi government in which Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkoman, Christian, Yazidi, communist, capitalist, secularist and Islamist are all represented may not even be a government the US particularly likes—particularly if Sunni ex-Baathists or radical clerics such as Moqtada al-Sadr hold key cabinet posts. But such a government will be legitimate, with the support of an overwhelming Iraqi majority, and will serve to hold the country together to the detriment of the insurgents.

As long as the new Iraqi government does not attempt to erode the important principles that buttress a pluralistic democratic state, the US should not attempt to fiddle with the internal Iraqi political process—even if it does not like who wins.