Commentary: Forging One Nation From Three Agendas

What's the best way to bring Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds together under a cohesive democracy?

Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator who left a legacy of mass graves and damaged survivors. He did, however, manage to hold together a fractious country through the force of his personality -- and some of the most violent repression the world has ever witnessed. Even before his capture on Dec. 13, his removal from power had unleashed a wave of chaos and criminality. Now the greatest challenge facing the U.S. and the Iraqis is to craft a new, democratic government that can bind Iraq's long-divided religious and ethnic groups together. The U.S. has agreed to turn over power to an Iraqi authority by July. But forging a consensus among Iraq's disparate communities could prove far more difficult than rounding up the cagey Saddam.

Post-Saddam Iraq is a country without a defining national identity, and over the long term that's a situation potentially more dangerous than the threat currently posed by the insurgents. Cobbled together by the British in the 1920s, Iraq resembles three countries more than one; it was kept together by strongmen rulers even before Saddam. The Kurds in the north, the Sunni Arabs north and west of Baghdad, and the Shiite Arabs of the south and center inhabit vast swaths of territory. There has long been tension where the communities overlap, such as in Kirkuk and Mosul. As if all that weren't enough, the various groups are far from united themselves. Many secular Shiites want no part of bans on alcohol and other strictures favored by their more observant coreligionists. Likewise, the Sunni community ranges from the educated elite of academics and former bureaucrats to the thugs who served as Saddam's spies and enforcers.

Coming up with a democratic government that doesn't tread too hard on the toes of any of the groups will be a formidable task for Iraq Civilian Administrator L. Paul Bremer III and the 25 Iraqis he has appointed to a Governing Council. If they fail, the July deadline for handing over power may have to be postponed. The country could break up or experience the cycles of insurrection and repression that plagued the Saddam years. "The U.S. needs to find a delicate system of checks and balances to enable all the major groups to live in a stable environment," says Amatzia Baram, a specialist on Iraq at the University of Haifa in Israel. Particularly important will be steps to reassure the Sunnis, who have lost power because of Saddam's fall and fear a government led by their Shiite rivals.

The Best Bet for Iraq

How to do it? Bremer and the Governing Council have agreed to make use of 18 existing governorates around the country. The governorates would have authority over local affairs, and by the end of May next year, each is supposed to choose representatives to a Transitional National Assembly. The assembly in turn would choose leaders and appoint a cabinet that would serve until elections for a permanent government by the end of 2005.

But this plan may be resisted, especially by the Kurds, who constitute 15% to 20% of the country's 24 million population. They suffered hellish persecution under Saddam and have enjoyed their own self-ruled enclave in northern Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Kurds have their own de facto border controls, laws, and an 80,000-strong army, and will be loath to permit any rollback of their autonomy. "We will not have the Iraqi bureaucracy decide our priorities here. Those days are over," says Barham Salih, Prime Minister of the Kurdish regional government in Sulaimaniya.

The best bet for the new Iraq might be a federation. Three to five separate, large regions could be given substantial autonomy, with the central government in Baghdad kept relatively weak. Some guarantee for minorities in the various regions would have to be found. Shiite religious leaders don't want powerful regions that would dilute their national clout, and there's always the danger the country could splinter. But the Sunnis may find it easier to accept their loss of power to the Shiites if they control their own areas. And the Kurds are in effect demanding such a setup. So Bremer should reconsider a truly federal solution as the most pragmatic way out of a tricky situation.

Whatever form of government is adopted, the Sunni minority must be assured a role. The Sunnis, who make up just 20% of the population, have monopolized Iraqi political positions for decades. Now they find themselves out in the cold, as Shiites dominate new institutions such as the Iraqi Governing Council. That enormous shift in the power balance has alienated many Sunnis, who could be big contributors to a new Iraq and are also capable of making trouble if they are left out. Most of the self-styled guerrillas responsible for bombings and shootings are Sunnis. "The Sunnis in this area don't feel they have been taken into account by the Governing Council and the current system," says Faleh Al-Naqeeb, Deputy Governor of Salaheddin in the so-called Sunni triangle north of Baghdad.

Al-Naqeeb says unemployment in his hometown of Samarra -- the scene of much recent fighting -- is running around 75%. Jobless idlers are easy targets for guerrilla leaders who want to add to their numbers. That's why the British have been urging their American allies to dangle more carrots in the form of economic help, rather than relying only on harsh military tactics to suppress the resistance in these places. "We have to make the Sunni heartland feel that it has a stake in the future," says a senior British official. "Otherwise people will be recruited to the [resistance] campaign."

That message, at least, seems to be getting across. Al-Naqeeb says he has been promised $8 million to $10 million by the U.S. for construction projects in Samarra that would employ locals. And next year, more than $20 billion will start flowing into Iraq. Money will go a long way toward improving the public mood. But Iraq is likely to be a dangerous, divided place until its people find a way to fill the vacuum left by Saddam.

By Stanley Reed

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