- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

They want popular elections, and they want them now. In fact, yesterday would have been better. That is the word from the leaders of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim population, who have taken to the streets in massive demonstrations to press their demands. After decades of violent oppression, who can blame Iraq’s largest population group for wanting to flex its political muscles? With 60 percent of the country’s population, they stand to win absolute victory.

Yet, if Iraq is not to descend into civil war, it is imperative that the transfer of power to an elected government is an orderly and equitable process that takes into account the interests of all three of Iraq’s major population groups, the Shi’ites, the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds. Any rush to bring an unrealistic timetable to bear on the complex situation in Iraq would jeopardize stability. In other words, the Iraqi Shi’ites must be told to bide their time. It would have been a good thing if we had told them this last summer, when their demands made us accelerate the timetable for elections.

The question now is, of course, who is in the best position to communicate that message to the Shi’ite leadership, in the shape of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Husseini Sistani. The U.S. governor of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, is of the mind that the United Nations has a role to play here, in communicating with the ayatollah, and down the road organizing and supervising elections. After meetings in Washington last week, Mr. Bremer spent Monday in New York discussing the Iraqi situation with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is showing interest.

Now, some of us have expressed strong reservations about getting the United Nations too deeply involved in the political situation in Iraq. We need a lasting political settlement, not an interim solution that might drag on for years, as has happened elsewhere when the United Nations got involved.

Nevertheless, it may be that, in this case, the United Nations holds a piece of the puzzle. Mr. Sistani has demanded that the United Nations conduct a feasibility study of the election process to determine when voting can take place. This would place the United Nations in the position of mediator, a role for which it is suited. Additionally, it would take some of the heat off the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority. If the ayatollah believes he can sell the idea of a feasibility study of elections to the Shi’ites, we would do well to buy into it, too — as long as the United States and its allies remain in control of security.

For the United Nations, this would be a chance to redeem itself and prove its continued relevance. The credibility of the world body has taken a huge battering over Iraq. After failing to enforce its own numerous resolutions on Iraq, the Security Council proved totally dysfunctional one year ago as negotiations broke down in recriminations between the United States, France, Germany and Russia. Since then, the United Nations’ aid effort came to an end with the attack on its compound in Baghdad that caused Mr. Annan to pull out its U.N. personnel.

In the longer term, the question becomes what kind of political settlement we can reasonably aim for in Iraq. If our standard is Jeffersonian democracy as practiced in the United States, we will certainly fall short. Further, if we were to endorse the Shi’ite demand for one-man, one-vote, the country might well break up; the Kurds in the north are already making noises about seeking their own state, and the Sunnis are restive.

A decentralized system with strong local controls will best fit the tripartite ethnic composition of Iraq and the realities on the ground. The country, which was carved by the British out of the Ottoman Empire, is by no means a homogeneous whole, with 60 percent Shi’ites, 20 percent Sunni Muslims and about 20 percent Kurds. Though they are roughly divided between the South, the middle and the North, ethnic demarcation lines are not so neat.

Accordingly, a system that would be based on local enclaves with their own governments and a weak central authority or council may well be one that stands the best chance of survival. But before anything resembling meaningful elections can take place, there has to be a constitutional framework and a census of the population. That will take time.

This will not be the message impatient Shi’ites want to hear. But for everybody’s sake involved in Iraq, that is what they must be told.

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