WALTHAM, Mass. — If the United States hopes to ensure a functional postwar Iraq, it had better fully understand the different sectarian and ethnic groups within the country -- and their connections outside Iraq.
Since its creation in 1921, Iraq has been governed by a Sunni Arab minority, which constitute less than 20% of the country's population. The Sunnis felt entitled to rule Iraq because they considered themselves the heirs of the Ottoman Empire. Their claim to rule has been backed by the preponderance of Sunnis over Shiites in the wider Arab world and by the support of Arab Sunni leaders, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who view Shiism as heresy and have felt more comfortable with Sunni rule next door.
The policies of Western powers, especially those of the United States, have bolstered Sunni rule in Iraq. Until recently, the U.S. considered the Baath regime as a counterweight to Shiite Iran. This was an important factor in America's backing of Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war with Iran and its decision not to aid Iraqi Shiites when they rebelled against Hussein's regime in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Ignoring the Shiites was possible in 1991, when the U.S. had limited designs for a regime change in Iraq. But it is not possible now amid the downfall of the Baath regime. The Bush administration will need to reach out to the Shiite Arab majority, which represents 60% of the country's population, while taking measures to ensure that a change of regime in Iraq will not expose the Sunni minority to Shiite revenge and tyranny.
The administration will also need to guarantee the sociopolitical rights of the Kurds, who make up 20% of the population, within a reunified Iraq and continue to pressure Turkey to limit its activities in the northern part of the country. The more leverage Turkey gains through military intervention or political support of the tiny Turkmen community in Iraq, the more leverage Iran will inevitably seek by attempting to influence Shiite affairs in the country. And the more Iran becomes involved, the more influence Arab states will try to exercise, by claiming to safeguard the interests of the Sunni minority in Iraq.
During the transition period from U.S. military to Iraqi civilian rule, it will be the Americans' responsibility to institute some level of "de-Baathification," but there is no need to completely shut Iraqi Sunnis out of a role in the government. One initial step would be to take pains to retain many of the civilian technocrats (who are disproportionately Sunni) currently employed in the state bureaucracy. Such a policy would signal to Iraqi Sunnis that the downfall of the Baath regime was not intended to strip them of power and would encourage them to have a stake in a new Iraq.
Baghdad will likely remain the locus of Iraqi national politics. But it is also in the center of the country, which is where the Sunni minority is dominant. It will be crucial, once oil fields are producing at capacity again, to invest a large chunk of the oil proceeds in development projects in the northern and southern regions, where oil is found, and which in the past did not receive their fair share of investment, in large part because the south is predominantly Shiite while the north is dominated by the Kurds.
Until political parties are formed and a national leader elected, power could perhaps be shared by a triumvirate representing each of Iraq's major sectarian and ethnic groups. There could be, say, a Shiite president, a Sunni prime minister and a Kurdish speaker of parliament. Their roles should be constitutionally defined and endorsed by the parliament, which, like the government, should also be representative of Iraq's various social groups.
Iraq's main communities are likely to develop religious and sociocultural institutions that would operate on the principle of checks and balances. These institutions would not necessarily reinforce sectarian and ethnic divisions, but rather manage the competition among various groups within each community and reduce tension among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The question of whether Iraq could move, in the long run, from a state governed by a confessional system -- whereby sectarian and ethnic groups are represented according to a predetermined ratio -- into one enjoying full democracy will be determined primarily by the actions and wishes of Iraqis themselves.