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The High-Wire Act in Iraq

February 15, 2004

It was never going to be easy to rebuild Iraq into a coherent nation and overcome quarrels among the two main branches of Islam -- Sunni and Shiite -- and the ethnically separate Kurds. The Pentagon mostly ignored the rivalries before the war and appeared surprised afterward, for instance when Kurds warned harshly against letting Turkish troops enter Iraq as occupation forces.

By the time the depth of hatred between the previously favored Sunnis and the persecuted Shiites became clear, the death toll was climbing. Dislike of the occupiers was about all that brought any unity.

Now, when the United States is trying to disentangle itself from running Iraq on a day-to-day basis, suicide bombers have made the task of building a nation both more urgent and more difficult. The police and army applicants who will have to take over from U.S. troops are targets of those who would intimidate civil government out of existence. Kurdish political movements are also targets. Yet the U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders working on a plan to move the country toward a more democratic independence must continue.

The blueprint under discussion would create a transitional government and lead to a constitution and permanent government, perhaps by the end of next year. It calls for Islam to be the principal source of legislation but does not insist on the strict religious law enshrined in Saudi Arabia.

A flaw in the plan is a proposed three-person presidency, expected to include a Shiite, a Sunni and a Kurd. That idea has worked poorly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a rotating presidency among Croats, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims has preserved the divisions that triggered a brutal war.

A major challenge in Iraq will be persuading Kurds, dominant in northern Iraq, that they are not a country-in-waiting, ready to join with Kurds in Turkey and Iran as well as Iraq. An Iraqi government should allow Kurds as much autonomy as possible; the Kurds have largely governed themselves under the protection of U.S. air power since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But the Kurds should acknowledge that wider independence is out of the question, as is sole Kurdish control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The forces opposing peaceful nationalism are strong. Suicide bombers thought to be connected to the radical Islamic group Ansar al Islam killed more than 100 Kurds at two Islamic feast celebrations Feb. 1, just as two Kurdish political parties began to unify. The parties should continue the attempt to merge as a unified secular force.

Political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote in his book "Imagined Communities" of individuals -- strangers personally -- who use a recognized connection and common language to forge a nation. The disparate Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites must commit wholly to a new Iraq and to challenging each other in the legislature and courts, not on the battlefield and not with furtive bombers.

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