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Courage Under Fire

It takes courage to vote with the sound of mortars and gunfire still ringing and memories of terrorist beheadings still fresh. Whatever the final tally of the turnout Sunday in Iraq, the willingness of millions to defy suicide bombers and killers who threatened havoc at the polls provided some unequivocal good news. Not least, the world could honestly see American troops making it possible for a long-oppressed people to choose their destiny.

The creation of a new government will not be fast or certain. It will take at least days to know the results of voting for the 275-member transitional national assembly and governments in Iraq’s 18 provinces. Then the horse-trading will begin, to choose a president and two deputies who will in turn pick a prime minister, the top power slot in the current government structure. The assembly also has the job of writing a constitution, thus deciding contentious questions like the role of Islam in Iraq and the rights of minority ethnic and religious groups.

As it struggles for consensus on those larger issues, the interim government also needs to demonstrate some success in Iraq’s version of filling the potholes: turning on the lights in cities like Baghdad for more than a few hours a day and reducing hours-long lines at gas pumps in an oil-rich nation. Many Iraqis say that although they’re still glad to have Hussein gone, their daily lives are worse now.

Turnout appeared low, as expected, in Sunni areas, higher in Shiite and Kurdish strongholds. Insurgents managed to kill more than 40 people, despite traffic bans. President Bush said last week, “I urge people to defy these terrorists.” Many did so, leading Bush to proclaim Iraq committed to democracy. He was somewhat ahead of events, for commitment will require forming a government that continues to advance peace and stability. But the Bush administration was proved right in sticking to its election timetable.

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The continuing dangers and costs of rebuilding Iraq were apparent in attacks on polling places and the crash of a British military plane. Previous proclaimed watersheds, like the capture of Hussein in December 2003 and the hand-over of authority to an interim Iraqi government last June, have brought disappointingly little change.

Shiites, who account for 60% of Iraq’s population, are expected to dominate the national assembly. To have hope of holding the country together, they will have to offer government posts and guarantees to Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who each total about 20% of the population. Instability, even civil war, in a region that supplies so much of the world’s energy needs would wreak havoc with global economies. The prospect of Sunni-Shiite violence more directly worries nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with their Sunni majorities and Shiite minorities.

If the Shiite majority does its part, Sunnis should trade in their nostalgia for the years they ran the country under Hussein and aim for sharing power in a new government. A Sunni boycott of the election was a bad idea; if given a chance to help shape the constitution, Sunni leaders would betray their followers by spurning it.


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