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Winners and losers in Iraq

PRESIDENT BUSH IS FOND OF berating opponents of the Iraq war who allegedly claim that Arab nations such as Iraq aren’t ready for democracy. The president now needs to explain democracy to Iraq’s Sunnis and let them know that in elections like the one held last week, the group with the most votes wins.

Unfortunately for the Sunnis, those were the other guys.

Sunni politicians who claim the election was rigged and should be held anew, or at least that claims of fraud should be investigated by international groups, picked up some support Thursday from secular Shiite groups that also are disappointed with the still-incomplete election returns. It has been clear almost from the time the polls closed that the United Iraqi Alliance, which has close ties to Shiites in theocratic Iran and supports a state governed by Shiite precepts, won the most votes. Preliminary calculations give the United Iraqi Alliance more than 40% of the votes and 110 of the 275 seats in parliament. A Sunni coalition was far behind, with less than 20% of the vote.

The U.S. investment in Iraq’s future was dramatized this week by Baghdad visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Also paying visits to Iraq were the prime ministers of Britain, Tony Blair, and Poland, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. Bush hailed the strong election turnout by making a rare speech from the Oval Office on Sunday night.

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Washington, led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, needs to urge the government that eventually emerges to think first of Iraq’s unity, not revenge. It will be difficult to satisfy all the demands of Iraq’s key groups -- the majority Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, who predominate in different sections of the country. Iraq could fracture into pieces, especially if Shiites who suffered so much under Saddam Hussein -- who favored his fellow Sunnis -- look for payback.

A joint statement by nearly three dozen political groups that did poorly in the election, and want the results investigated by the United Nations, the European Union or the Arab League, has the stench of sour grapes. The organizations threatened to boycott Iraq’s new legislature if their demand is not met. They should get over it, like the losers of elections in all democratic countries. Iraq has its own Independent Electoral Commission, which monitored the balloting and has pledged to look into about 700 complaints, at least 20 of them serious.

Sunnis boycotted the January vote for an interim national assembly, then took part in October’s constitutional referendum and last week’s balloting. Preliminary calculations indicate that they are likely to get more than 40 seats in parliament, far more than the 17 they now hold. A secular Shiite group headed by the former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, appears to have won 21 seats, though that could increase by the time final results, including expatriate ballots, are certified next month.

Seen in the best light, the differing strengths will encourage political bargaining; the worst view envisions governmental paralysis, especially if the insurgency that has killed so many Iraqis and U.S. soldiers continues.

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Most insurgents are Sunnis, and sectarian unhappiness and anger could fuel more violence. The Shiites should reach out to their onetime antagonists and understand it will take a political agreement, not a military victory, to end the insurgency.


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