Putting Sunni Fears to Rest

When Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy who helped form Iraq's interim government, calls Iraq a "mess" - and then states that elections scheduled for Jan. 30 can't be held if conditions don't improve, that's an authoritative voice on the side of those arguing for putting off the poll.

Increased violence in Iraq, especially in the "Sunni triangle," threatens to keep a significant segment of voters from the polls. The security situation recently prompted more than a dozen mostly Sunni parties to seek to delay the country's first election by six months.

But President Bush insists the election will proceed as scheduled. This is the right course, even if the elections are seriously flawed - though there's still time to improve the prospects for a more credible outcome.

What puts the postponement question in perspective is another question: Will a delay significantly improve the security conditions? November matched April as the highest one-month total of US troops who died in Iraq (135). As long as security remains an open question, there's no point in kicking the voting six months down the road.

Sticking to the timetable carries risk, but other factors lend courage to going ahead. Derailing the election is exactly what the insurgents want; agreeing to that is giving in to terrorist demands. Also, the January date is not some arbitrary spot on the calendar; it's enshrined in Iraq's interim constitution. Heeding an important document like a constitution seems wise when it comes to nation-building.

Then there's this balancing factor: While roughly 20 percent of the population (the Sunnis) might be scared to go to the polls or boycott them, about 80 percent - most notably the Shiite majority - lives in relatively peaceful areas. Were the elections to be put off, Iraq risks a reprise of armed conflict in the Shiite south (let's not forget Moqtada al-Sadr's standoff in Najaf last spring).

By increasing US troop strength by 12,000, the Bush administration is doing its best to address the Sunnis' security concerns. But Sunnis have another key issue: political marginalization. Favored under Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, Sunnis fear being pushed aside when the newly elected parliament, expected to be dominated by the long-suppressed Shiite majority, writes the country's permanent constitution. As a result, key Sunni clerics are calling for an election boycott.

An opportunity exists to address this fear, and that opportunity lies in the hands of Iraq's political kingmaker, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Shiite cleric should publicly reassure Sunnis that he knows democracy does not mean a dictatorship of the majority, and that Shiites will work to ensure minority rights. Although a rather simple statement, it's one that would carry great weight and indicate the rise of responsible leadership in Iraq - which is what the elections are trying to accomplish in the first place.

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