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One step at a time in Iraq

TODAY’S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS in Iraq should represent a major step toward getting substantial numbers of U.S. troops out of the country -- soon. Those elected will choose a government that is no longer transitional, one that will rule by a constitution (a flawed document, but subject to amendment) and, if the Iraqis are lucky, protect minority rights and hold the country together.

With more than 7,000 candidates vying for 275 seats, the results are unlikely to be known for days, perhaps weeks. Nor will ballots stop bullets; terrorist groups mostly observed a cease-fire this week but are expected to resume the killings within days. Yet a permanent, elected government should point to a future without U.S. forces. That’s a future as desirable in Baghdad as in Washington. It will increasingly be up to Iraqis to enlist security forces and train them, obtain intelligence on terrorists and stop attacks on the oil fields the country needs to fund the government.

The U.S. dispatched more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq for preelection security. The Pentagon said this week that a post-election security assessment could include a recommendation to reduce the troop strength to well below the current 160,000. More than 2,100 U.S. soldiers have been killed, and President Bush said this week that about 30,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion more than two years ago. The war has had a fearsome economic cost as well; the Pentagon is reportedly looking for a boost in military spending next year that would push the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to nearly half a trillion dollars. The human and monetary toll hasn’t bought significant progress, leading to a major erosion of support for the war and for Bush among Americans.

In the last of four preelection speeches defending his Iraq strategy, Bush on Wednesday asked Americans to be patient “until victory is achieved.” He is right not to set a deadline for a complete U.S. withdrawal, but tens of thousands more soldiers should come home next year, replaced by Iraqis. This must not be an open-ended deployment.

It is encouraging that Sunni Muslims, who account for about 20% of the population, have been ordered to vote by their religious leaders. Sunnis boycotted the January election for an interim government; their turnout increased in the October constitutional referendum. Sunnis need to take part in the political process if they hope to share in the country’s oil wealth and avoid being marginalized by the dominant Shiite Muslims. A breakup of Iraq remains a possibility, despite the disastrous effect it would have on the country and regional stability.

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After years of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, torture and wars, as well as the U.S. invasion and occupation, Iraq needs politicians willing and able to consider the needs of the country first, not those of a tribe, religion or party. Whether it will get such legislators will not be clear for months, perhaps years. Today is merely the start of a difficult but worthy process undertaken against long odds.


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