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Next test: insurgents
By Frank Smyth, February 1, 2005, Newsday

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Original story found here.

The Bush administration looks like it has finally scored a ringing success in Iraq.

But, if one objective of Sunday's elections was to help defeat Iraq's ongoing insurgencies, then the exercise failed.

The question now is how Iraq's next government will handle the insurgents. Before Sunday, they threatened voters. But U.S. troops led the effort to secure polling stations, while more than half of Iraq's eligible voters defied insurgent threats and exercised their first real chance for self-empowerment in history.

No one should doubt the sincerity of that step--least of all President George W. Bush and his senior advisers. For, as much as Iraq's elections stand as a triumph, they also mark the failure of the administration's original plan for governing the nation. Instead of helping to install pliable Iraqis ready to follow Washington's lead, Iraq's next government will be dominated by Shia Arabs, more than two-thirds of whom, according to a recent poll by the reliable Zogby International, want U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as the new government is in place.

Iraq's next leaders, however, may want us to stay a little longer, as any abrupt U.S. withdrawal could plunge the nation into a civil war. And, if the way Iraqis voted on Sunday is any indication, such a conflict is already under way. The day before Iraq's elections, the new White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, claimed in a Washington Post op-ed that Iraq's sectarian splits were being overblown. Yet the turnout was undeniably high in Shia as well as Kurdish areas, while in the Sunni Arab heartland relatively fewer Iraqis chose to vote.

Rather than unite Iraq, the U.S.-backed elections have only sharpened the struggle for political power among the nation's different population groups. The challenge for both the next Iraqi government and the Bush administration is to find a way to reach out to Iraq's newly disenfranchised Sunni Arab minority. Not only are areas like the Sunni Triangle the same places where few Iraqis voted, but these same areas remain the main base of Iraq's ongoing insurgencies.

The Bush administration launched a major military offensive in cities like Fallujah before the elections. Yet, even though U.S. operations killed or drove out many insurgents, they still failed to secure these areas in a way that compelled Sunnis to vote. Some commentators have already asked whether the next government will be able to find and train Iraqi troops to take over more of the fighting from U.S. forces. But these new Iraqi troops may well be drawn from Iranian-trained Shia militias, and their deployment would only further split Iraq's sectarian sides.

One alternative now would be to try to negotiate with Iraq's Sunni insurgents instead of trying to eliminate them militarily. Fortunately, the United States already has a precedent for such an approach, even if Bush administration officials still fail to see it.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have each pointed to El Salvador's war-time elections 20 years ago as a supposed model for Iraq. But they forget that El Salvador's war dragged on for another 10 years after that nation's first election, and its war ended not through elections at all but only after El Salvador's U.S.-backed government finally decided to negotiate with El Salvador's insurgents.

Negotiating with Iraqi insurgents would be even harder. While many if not most Sunni Arabs may well desire peace, foreign insurgents tied to al-Qaida would surely continue using terror to try to derail any possible settlement. Sadly, the war in Iraq may also already be dangerously close to the point at which even a new strategy would not be enough to prevent the nation's slide into even thicker sectarian bloodshed. If so, U.S. troops would end up stuck in the middle, while fighting at least one side.

It's hoped senior Bush administration advisers have finally learned something, at least since Sunday. Sectarian divisions do matter in a country where one small group has oppressed others for not only decades but centuries. The new Iraq promises to be more representative, indeed, than any government in that region's long history. But, instead of being the first step toward democracy, it could yet mark the start of a full-blown civil war.

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