A First Step

The Iraqis now have a constitution, but not a consensus.

The early returns show that Sunni opponents of the constitution did not carry the three provinces necessary to kill it, but a 97 percent no vote in one Sunni-dominated province showed the depth of their disapproval.

The good news for the Bush administration is that the Sunnis did turn out to vote. The hope is, as expressed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that as Iraqis, especially the Sunnis, increasingly participate in the political process support for the insurgency will be undermined. At the moment this seems like a faint hope.

The timetable now calls for the Iraqis to form political parties and draw up candidate slates for elections Dec. 15 to select a permanent national government to take office Dec. 31. This is the last stop in the U.S.-brokered political timetable for Iraq. The Bush administration had hoped that would mark the point where the United States could start withdrawing, but it’s an open question if this new government will be able to defend itself.

The Sunnis boycotted elections last January and as a result got only a handful of seats in the interim parliament. They seem determined not to repeat that mistake and because of proportional representation they are guaranteed a significantly greater number of seats. A last-minute compromise on the constitution gives the new parliament the power to amend the document so the Sunnis have at least a shot at removing provisions they find unacceptable.

The high turnout in the face of death threats from insurgents shows there is a large, dedicated _ and brave _ constituency among Iraqis for having democratic control over their country. Their time for taking that control behind an American shield is likely limited.

President Bush’s faltering political fortunes and growing disenchantment with the war mean that a massive American military presence in Iraq is not indefinite. That means the future of Iraq is less and less in the hands of the United States and more and more in the hands of the Iraqis themselves. The constitution is a small but necessary step in that direction.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)