In Iraq we are now where we should have been in 2005 if the Sunni Arab community had not staged a bloody revanchist insurrection. The parliamentary elections on March 7 gave us a good snapshot of the real Iraq: an insecure Sunni Arab minority more or less united in one bloc, the Shiite Arab majority building self-confidence and naturally fracturing along religious/secular lines, and the Kurdish (predominantly Sunni) minority united against the Arabs but internally fractious and increasingly dissatisfied with the two families who’ve ruled Kurdish politics for decades.
At first glance, we’ve got a four-way horse race, where shifting coalitions could produce surprising results (a Kurdish-religious Shiite coalition, a Sunni Arab-secular Shiite coalition, or even a Sunni Arab-Kurdish alliance, for example). Although the returns aren’t final at this writing, it appears Shiite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law slate has come in first; the Iraqiya coalition, which represents Arab Sunnis and some secular Shiites, a close second; and the National Alliance, which pulls together a wide array of Shiites, especially from the more religious south, a close third. The Kurds, meanwhile, split their vote between the Kurdish Alliance, which is the disputatious marriage of the Barzani and Talabani political machines, and the feisty independent Change Movement led by Nawshirwan Mustafa.
If this outcome had been reached in 2005 we all could have popped the champagne. Instead, in 2005, only the Shiite Arabs and Kurds went en masse to the urns. Since then we’ve had three years of hell and one year of purgatory (Muslims have no intermediate stage between heaven and hell, but the new Iraq is going politically and theologically where no Arabs have gone before). Most pivotally, we had the Battle of Baghdad in 2006-07.
If Iraq continues down a democratic path, the results of that battle—not the presence of U.S. troops over the last seven years—will likely prove to have decided the country’s fate. We will soon get to see whether Iraq’s Sunni Arabs really can live with the military defeat they suffered in 2007 and the political defeat they suffered last week. We will soon get to see if they can live without the Americans (who, in a truly surreal turnaround, are now the protectors of the very Sunni Arabs who once drove the insurgency against the invader). Politically, the Iraqi Shia are unlikely to be generous with their erstwhile Sunni overlords. Washington can continue to encourage them to be so. But in Iraqi Shiite eyes what Washington has been doing since the surge began in 2007—when General David Petraeus started paying Sunni tribes to stand against al Qaeda and with the Americans—is bribing the Sunnis to behave. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have wanted, truth be told, the Shia to accept a kind of affirmative action: For peace and a quicker American withdrawal, we’ve wanted the Shia to give the Arab Sunnis political and economic guarantees that exceed Sunni Arab electoral power. (The Arab Sunni community represents at most 20 percent of Iraq’s population, the Shiite Arabs about 60 percent, and the Kurds the remaining 20 percent.)
In a very Arab way, the Americans have been trying to fight sectarianism through a reward system based on sect. Good democrats that we are, Americans don’t say this. But ideally that’s what we’d like to see: a firm informal understanding that gives the Arab Sunnis a political check on the Shiite majority. Such an arrangement has become ever more appealing in Washington as the specter of Iranian influence in Iraq has risen. Although Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is usually too sophisticated to say flatly that Shiite equals pro-Persian, a pro-Arab-Sunni reflex is deeply embedded in the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, and much of the think tank world that feeds the government. It’s an odd view, given the history of relations between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, which have been defined by suspicion, animosity, and envy more than brotherly love. Still, it persists.