Eye of the Storm: Needed - a new Iraqi timetable

Democratization can no longer be derailed, but there is much hard work to do ahead.

At last! After months spent on a roller-coaster of expectations, Iraq has a new constitution, the first democratic one in its 80-year history as a nation-state. Fears that a massive "no" from Arab Sunnis in the October 15 referendum might kill the proposed draft vanished Tuesday when the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) announced the final results showing that almost 79 percent of those who voted approved the draft.

"The referendum showed that the Sunnis are now part of the political process," Salim Abdullah, a leader of the largely Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, told us hours after the results were announced. "We have rejected the option of violence in favour of political action."

The referendum was an important moment in the history of post-liberation Iraq for a number of reasons. A majority of Arab Sunnis, who account for some 15% of the population, reversed their policy of boycotting the elections and turned up in large numbers to vote. Many of them voted against the proposed draft, especially in the four provinces where they form a majority of the population.

In the end, however, the radical Arab Sunni groups that wanted to kill the constitution at birth failed to muster the two-thirds majority required in at least three provinces. Only two provinces, Anbar and Salahuddin, produced the two-thirds "no" required. But the largest of the four mainly Arab Sunni provinces, Nineveh, rejected the draft with 55% of the votes in an unusually high turnout.

The 21% "no" vote across Iraqi is higher than the demographic strength of Arab Sunnis would warrant. There are two reasons for this. First, the Arab Shi'ite turnout this time was slightly lower than last January's general election, largely because many believed that the draft would pass without their vote. The second reason is that many secular Arab Shi'ites, confident that the text would win approval anyway, tactically voted against the draft to register their unhappiness with what they regard as its "Islamic" features.

But when all is said and done this was a ringing endorsement. The number of voters rose by almost two million above last January's general election, and in some governorates the turnout was as high as 90%. As the United Nations commission supervising the referendum has noted, the vote indicates a wide measure of consensus that cuts across ethnic and sectarian divides.

The passage of the proposed draft shows that the insurgents and their Arab terrorist allies have failed to interrupt the political timetable established by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority almost three years ago. The timetable started with the creation of a Governing Council and continued with the holding of municipal elections in all but three of the 18 governorates. Next, it provided for the creation of an independent electoral commission and a special committee to draft a new constitution.

In June 2004 the timetable entered a new phase with the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis and the creation of a coalition government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. That was followed by the enactment of a law allowing the emergence of a pluralist multi-party system. Next came the January 31 general election which produced a new government with Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister.

At every step the insurgents and their Arab terrorist allies did their utmost to interrupt the political process, and failed. It is now clear that the insurgency and the terrorism that accompanies it, deadly though they are, cannot translate their murderous deeds into any political gain.

The process of democratization in Iraq has not been derailed. And, for those interested in the big picture, this is really what matters. The killers may continue planting bombs and sending suicide-killers to massacre innocent civilians for years to come - as their counterparts did in Egypt and Algeria for decades. But, despite noises made in their favour by some "useful idiots" in the West, they have no chance of nipping Iraqi democracy in the bud and restoring the Arab despotic model in Baghdad.

All this does not mean that Iraq is out of the woods. Far from it. In a sense, the hardest part may well be ahead. The reason is that the political timetable established three years ago will come to an end with the multiparty general election scheduled to be held on December 15. That election would produce a new National Assembly (parliament) which will, in turn, name a new government. After that, however, there is a blank.

It seems that no one has given much thought about the post-election strategy. But time, which has so far been on the side of Iraqis and their coalition allies, may not necessarily continue its current trajectory. Public opinion in both the United States and Britain is turning against involvement in Iraq while both Iran and Syria are clearly intensifying their efforts to do as much mischief in Iraq as they can.

It is now up to the Iraqi leaders and the coalition to keep the momentum going. A number of urgent measures need to be taken.

The first is a pledge by all the major parties in the parliament that the promised commission on constitutional amendments will be formed immediately after the general election in December. That promise had been given as part of measures to persuade Arab Sunnis to take part in the referendum. The passage of the proposed draft, however, does not mean that Arab Sunni concerns, some of which are justified, need no longer be addressed.

Secondly, Iraq's democratic parties should send delegations to the US and Europe to help counter the pessimistic analyses peddled by the opponents of liberation. In both the US and Europe, Iraq is depicted as either a quagmire or a country on the verge of civil war. Reporting on Iraq is largely confined to images of the charred remains of a car bomb driven by a suicide-killer. It is important that the Americans and the Europeans hear about the other Iraq from Iraqis themselves.

But the most important measure to be taken concerns the establishment of a national consensus on the two or three key issues that the coming parliament would have to tackle as soon as it is formed.

Chief among these is the conditions under which the coalition troops remain in Iraq. Both the Iraqis and public opinion in the 32 countries that have troops in Iraq need to see at least a notional timetable for ending the presence of large foreign armies.

Another key issue is the much-talked-of but as yet vague plan for national reconciliation. The coming parliament would have the authority to decide a general amnesty, set up a truth and reconciliation commission, and determine the outer limits of de-Ba'athification.

As far as democratization is concerned Iraq has been far more successful than its friends hoped and its enemies feared. Part of that success was due to the existence of a clear timetable which has been honored to the dot, often in the teeth of the most vicious terrorist attacks in contemporary Islamic history. A new timetable is needed for the coming parliament - a timetable for the consolidation of Iraq's democratic progress and the restoration of its full sovereignty.