Fighting the good fight

Posted: Nov 26, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- In 1864, 11 of the 36 United States did not participate in the presidential election. Was Lincoln's election therefore illegitimate?
In 1868, three years after the security situation had, shall we say, stabilized, three states (not insignificant ones: Texas, Virginia and Mississippi) did not participate in the election. Was Grant's election illegitimate?

     There has been much talk that if the Iraqi election is held and some Sunni Arab provinces (perhaps 3 of the 18) do not participate, the election will be illegitimate. Nonsense. The election should be held. It should be open to everyone. If Iraq's Sunni Arabs -- barely 20 percent of the population -- decide they cannot abide giving up their 80 years of minority rule, ending with 30 years of Saddam's atrocious tyranny, then tough luck. They forfeit their chance to shape and participate in the new Iraq.

     Americans are dying right now in order to give them that very chance. The United States is making a costly last-ditch effort to midwife a new, unitary Iraq. The Fallujah and related offensives are designed to reduce the brutal intimidation of the Sunni population by the dead-end Baathists and others seeking to retake the power they enjoyed under Saddam. But when those offensives are over, the Sunnis themselves -- ordinary people who out of either fear or sympathy have been giving refuge and support to the terrorist insurgents -- will have to make a choice. Either they join the new Iraq by participating in the coming election or they institutionalize the civil war their side has already begun.

     People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it. The other side, the Shiites and the Kurds, are largely watching as their part of the fight is borne primarily by the United States. Both have an interest in the outcome. The Shiites constitute a majority of Iraqis and will inevitably inherit power in any democratic arrangement. The Kurds want to retain their successful autonomous zone without worrying about new depredations at the hands of the Sunni Arabs.

     This is the Shiites' and Kurds' fight. Yet when police stations are ravaged by Sunni Arab insurgents in Mosul, U.S. soldiers are rushed in to fight them. The obvious question is: Why don't we unleash the fierce and well-trained Kurdish Peshmerga militias on them? (Mosul is heavily Kurdish and suffered a terrible Kurdish expulsion under Saddam.)

     Yes, some of the Iraqi police/National Guard units fighting with our troops are largely Kurdish. But they, like the Shiites, fight in an avowedly nonsectarian Iraqi force. Why? Because we want to maintain this idea of a unified, nonethnic Iraq. At some point, however, we must decide whether that is possible or not, and how many American lives should be sacrificed in its name.

     Six months ago I wrote in this space that while ``our goal has been to build a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West'' that ``may be, in the short run, a bridge too far. ... We should lower our ambitions and see Iraqi factionalization as a useful tool.''

     For example, we (and the British) are spearheading a new counteroffensive against Sunni guerrillas south of Baghdad. Where are the Shiites? I understand Shiite wariness about fighting with us. It is not, as conventional wisdom has it, because of some deep-seated Iraqi nationalism. In 1991, the Shiites were begging the United States to intervene during their uprising against Saddam. They were dying, literally, for the American army to help them. Unfortunately, and the misfortune continues to haunt us to this day, they were betrayed. Having encouraged them to rebel, we did not lift a finger as Saddam slaughtered them by the thousands.

     Given that history, they are today understandably wary about American steadfastness and intentions. If they do go out on a limb and pick up the fight against the insurgent Sunnis, will we leave them hanging again?

     Our taking on the Sunnis is a way of demonstrating good faith. As is our intention to hold the election no matter what. Everyone knows the outcome will be a historic transfer of power to the Shiites (and, to some extent, the Kurds). We must make it clear that we will be there to support that new government. But we also have to make it clear that we are not there to lead the fight indefinitely. It is their civil war.