- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2005

President Bush has warned that setbacks are possible in today’s Iraqi election, the third and most important of this year’s Iraqi elections and the one in which voters choose the country’s first full-term and fully constitutional legislature. But that was probably just caution speaking: In reality there is a very significant reason to be optimistic about this election, and that is the Sunni vote.

Sunnis are expected to turn out in droves this time around. This was the critical missing factor from January’s otherwise highly successful vote. Back then, Sunnis obeyed fatwas by clerics to boycott the vote. But this time, as many as a thousand Sunni clerics have issued fatwas urging followers to participate. Turnout could top 80 percent in some Sunni areas.

That paves the way for Sunni leaders to begin working wholeheartedly within the system, and that offers hope for ending the insurgency. Yesterday, Saleh al-Mutlek, a Sunni and a man regarded by some insurgents as an ally, told the Financial Times that the election will open the door for negotiations between the United States and Sunni leaders for the eventual curbing of violence. Mr. Mutlek has in mind a U.S. pullout — he wants to “convince them that they should withdraw from the cities” — but the fact that insurgent allies are even talking about negotiations suggests the enemy is starting to regard Iraq’s constitutional government as permanent.

Sunnis are all but guaranteed to fare much better in this election than in previous ones. While the United Iraqi Alliance, the party of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is expected to take the largest share of votes, its share will fall and the opening for a possible coalition government with Sunni leaders from predominantly Sunni groups such as the Iraqi Consensus Front or the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue emerges.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls for today’s election: The likelihood of suicide attacks on polling stations is immediate. Coalition forces are not guarding polling stations; it is almost entirely up to Iraqi police and military to secure the polls. There is the possibility of fraud. Afterward, we will not know the election’s results for weeks, and depending on the results, an ineffectual coalition government could become reality.

But today, Iraqis raise the purple finger in salute to the ideal of democracy. Tyrants across the Middle East will shudder. Success for Iraqi democracy means their autocratic days are numbered.

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