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Sanjay Upadhya: Turning The Sunni Key – And Fast

Iraq: Turning The Sunni Key – And Fast

By Sanjay Upadhya

In a sheer travesty of the times, we are discovering that Iraq's ex-Baathists may hold the real key to the country's – and the wider region's – long-term security and stability. How soon the Bush administration -- which has been patronizing the Kurds and sections of the Shia majority over the Sunnis – acknowledges and acts on this inexorable conclusion would define the course ahead.

As next month's referendum on the new Iraqi constitution approaches, Sunnis have been slowly participating in the political process. The problem is, they are actively seeking to defeat it.

American history ought to offer a guide to salvaging the statute, even within the confines of the coming days. Guarantees of a bill of rights of sorts to satisfy Sunni aspirations, for instance, might stand a chance of energizing the political process in a positive direction. But, then, sections of the U.S. establishment already have been taking the wrong lessons from their history of constitution-making.

While discussions on important provisions of the Iraqi constitution -- such as women's and minority rights -- were being debated throughout the summer, many U.S. experts started reminding the world of how America's Founding Fathers did not contemplate voting rights for women and freedom for slaves.

For an administration whose last credible rationale for going to war in Iraq is collapsing amid dwindling overall public approval ratings, producing a tangible constitution at any cost is attractive. The question of whether freedom and democracy in Iraq – and the wider Middle East – would be served by a stubbornly exclusive adherence to deadlines has failed to inspire sufficient introspection.

In his much-acclaimed essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, "How to Win in Iraq," Andrew F. Krepinevich advocates a new approach. Counterinsurgency operations should focus on providing security to Iraqis rather than on hunting down insurgents. For all its merits within the narrow definition of victory, that would hardly provide a credible basis to achieve the Bush administration's grand vision for the region.

Defying insurgents and doomsayers, Iraqis thronged polling stations in January to elect the assembly that oversaw the drafting of the constitution. Enhanced security might help increase the turnout next month, but it will do little to satisfy those skeptical of the statute's contents. A loosely federated Iraq in which Sunnis – the dominant group for much of Iraq's recent history – feel alienated is destined to implode.

To be sure, Iraq's Baathist past must not be allowed to tarnish its democratic future. The stakes, however, are too high to allow such generalizations to dictate policy. Is holding an entire community responsible for the atrocities committed by some members as part of a repugnant regime justified?

In terms of building alliances in the new Iraq, the U.S. has invested heavily in the majority Shias and the Kurds in the north. An abiding sense of obligation must have enthused some in the Bush administration. During the previous Gulf war, Washington encouraged both communities to rise up against Saddam, only to abandon them to the depredations of his army.

Washington's post-Saddam affinity for the Kurds and the Shias has many gaping holes. What impact would assertive Kurds in northern Iraq have on their cousins spread over three other countries? What would Washington's rationale be for bestowing a limited right to self-determination to Iraq's Kurds but not to those in Turkey, Iran and Syria? Certainly not oil, one would hope.

The costs of appeasing the Shias have been more apparent. Whether one-time Pentagon darling Ahmed Chalabi – a Shia with firm connections in Teheran – served Iranian interests by feeding lies – and withholding critical information -- on the Saddam government's WMD capabilities and the kind of hospitality ordinary Iraqis would offer American troops will be debated. For now, there are wider questions that need to be pursued.

To many, equating Moktada Al Sadr's extremism with Ayatollah Sistani's relative equanimity would sound sacrilegious. The fact remains that Al Sadr and Sistani have long enjoyed special relations across the border with Iran's theocracy. Overthrowing Saddam was the greatest gift the Americans could have bestowed on Iran's mullahs. The bonus of empowering their Shia cousins was too good to be true.

Any hope Washington might have had of crafting a tacit alliance with Teheran, after decades of bitterness, evaporated with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner, as president in June. But the damage has been done. U.S. investment in Iraq's Shias has rattled key Sunni-dominated pro-American regimes in the neighborhood. Don't count on a reduction in fresh insurgency recruits from Saudi Arabia and Jordan anytime soon.

The recent incident in Basra, where we thought British soldiers had befriended the locals through an empathy thoroughly lacking in the Americans, is another eye-opener. It turns out that resentment runs so deep that the Iraqi police the British trained felt it easier to hand over two captured Britons on an unspecified undercover operation to militants.

Drawing in dislodged yet determined Baathists is not something unprecedented in our times. Former communists in eastern Europe have recast themselves as democrats and won free and fair elections. Some have been enthusiastically welcomed at the White House. Maybe some ex-Baathists are capable of a genuine change of heart. By now, even Saddam may have figured that out.


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