Iraqi Shiites: Majority Rule?

Iraq will experience two revolutions in government once the war finally stops and peace starts.

With American assistance, a democracy will replace a dictatorship. But then, as a result, Iraq's long tradition of the minority Sunni Muslims ruling over the majority Shiites will likely come to an end.

That expected political flip-flop between the two main branches of Islam will catch the eye of other Arab states as much as the grand experiment to create a full Arab democracy. That's because much of domestic politics and international diplomacy in the Middle East - as well as its export of terrorism - is driven by a centuries-old competition between Sunnis and Shiites.

It's imperative then for Iraqi democrats shaping a new government to carefully weigh how much of a role to give Islam in civic life to ensure democracy's survival, and how much to structure a new government to both reflect and bridge this ancient religious divide among Arabs.

In Iran, the Shiite clerics who took power in 1979 put religious rule above democracy. But since then many Middle Eastern Muslims have decided to call themselves Islamic democrats. They support the goals of liberty and freedom. But they hope Islamic social values will be expressed through fair elections and can create governments that don't suppress minorities.

Shiites make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's people, while the more-secular Sunnis are less than 20 percent. Violence stemming from Shiite resentments toward the sometimes oppressive Sunni rule must be avoided, as well as violence between rival Shiite factions. Already a Shiite cleric has been killed at Najaf, the Shiite religious center.

Islam's tradition of peace and tolerance can fit with democracy's open elections and civil liberties. Both carry values that could bring greater prosperity and equality to Mideast Muslims. If Iraq can balance the two well - as Muslim Turkey is trying to do - the region will be the better for it.

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