commentary

(NPR)

January 26, 2005

Upcoming Iraqi Elections Could Make Ethnic Strife There Even Worse

by James Dobbins

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Commentator James Dobbins is a former special envoy to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Somalia. He worries that Sunday's elections could make Iraq an even more dangerous and unstable country.

JAMES DOBBINS: The Iraqi elections could consolidate support among Sunnis for the insurgency, increase violence and channel the fighting that results along ethnic and religious lines. That's because Iraq's present electoral system will award representation to each province based not on its population but on the number of voters who actually reach the polls. So Baghdad and the Sunni triangle will be at a serious disadvantage. Violence there is extraordinarily high and voter participation is likely to be correspondingly low.

It's probably too late to fix the Iraqi electoral system in order to make it more like that of the United States, but it's not too late to fix the consequences after the election. The new parliament and government can be adjusted to reflect the country's real population. Iraq can avoid escalating civil war if the upcoming elections are followed by negotiations for power sharing.

The Sunni and Kurdish minorities should be offered an enduring share in governance and they should have guarantees that the Shia majority cannot govern in an exclusive and discriminatory fashion. Sunni leaders should be offered positions in the government and additional seats in the legislature commensurate with their share in the population even if there's a low voter turnout in Sunni parts of the country.

This sort of power-sharing agreement ended earlier bloody civil wars between Christians and Muslims in both Lebanon and Bosnia. Unfortunately, the electoral results are likely to make such power sharing more difficult. They're likely to give the Shia an even larger majority in parliament and to make the Sunni an even smaller minority, but even so, moderate Shia leaders will have considerable incentives to share power. They want to hold Iraq together, they want to avoid a bloody civil war and they want to expedite an eventual American withdrawal. They cannot hope to achieve these objectives without some accommodation with the Sunnis.

The United States has a comparable interest in this outcome for exactly the same reasons, but maneuvering the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities toward that outcome will require an extraordinarily quiet and skilled diplomatic campaign. Some may accuse the United States of subverting the results of a free election. Others will say we're supporting the very community most opposed to our presence in Iraq, but the 60 to 90 days after this month's elections will be pivotal for Iraq's future.

If the electoral winners can be persuaded to share power with the losers, they will have a chance to convince a significant element of the Sunni community to support the government. Then moderate and democratic Iraqis will have a chance to hold their country together and to avoid the kind of ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence that we saw in Lebanon in the 1980s, in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and we see in Sudan today.

MONTAGNE: Commentator James Dobbins is head of the Rand Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

© 2005 NPR

This commentary originally appeared in NPR on January 26, 2005.

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