Thursday, September 29, 2005

Thomas L. Friedman: The Endgame in Iraq

Thomas Friedman

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Umm Qasr, Iraq --- Even a brief visit to this southern Iraq port leaves me convinced that we are entering the endgame here. The coming Iraqi votes, in October over the new constitution and in December over a new Parliament, are going to tell America whether it is worth staying here much longer.

Despite all the shameful blunders of Donald Rumsfeld, Iraq, at the end of the day, was always going to be what the Iraqis decided to make of it. And the Iraqi majority --- the Shiites and Kurds who make up roughly 80 percent of this country --- have spoken. They want an Iraq that will be decentralized and will allow each of their communities to run its own affairs and culture --- without fear of ever again being dominated and brutalized by an oil-backed Sunni minority regime in Baghdad.

Equally important, both the Kurds and the Shiites have made it clear that they have no interest in telling the Sunnis how to live, and will cut them a slice of Iraq's oil revenue and maintain Iraq's basic Arab identity.

So now we know what kind of majority the Kurds and Shiites want to be, the question is what kind of minority the Iraqi Sunnis want to be. Do they want to be the Palestinians and spend the next 100 years trying to mobilize the Arab-Muslim world to reverse history and restore their "right" to rule Iraq as a minority --- a move that would destroy them and Iraq?

Or do they want to embrace the future? I know the Sunnis are terrified by Iran's influence in this southern region, but, as the Brits who run the Basra area, which includes this port city of Umm Qasr, will tell you, the Iraqi Arab Shiites here are obsessed with not being dominated by Iran.

Despite growing cultural and commercial ties with Iran, they are Iraqis first. That attitude would only be enhanced if Iraqi Sunnis, rather than allowing or abetting the murders of Shiites, would instead embrace the new constitution and let the United States cut the Sunnis an even fairer slice of the pie.

"We have a lot of overlapping interests with the Sunnis of Iraq," a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said. Indeed, in the latter stages of the constitutional negotiations in Iraq, the talented U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, was basically acting as the Sunnis' lawyer in dealings with the Kurds and Shiites. The problem was that the Sunnis never knew when to say yes, "that's enough," and the United States got fed up with their demanding much more than their due.

Do the Iraqi Sunnis understand their own interests, and does the Sunni world have any moral center? Up to now the Sunni Arab world has stood mute while the Sunni Baathists and jihadists in Iraq have engaged in what can only be called "ethnic cleansing": murdering Shiite civilians in large numbers purely because they are Shiites in hopes of restoring a Sunni-dominated order in Iraq that is unrestorable.

A fatwa has just been issued against a female Indian tennis player who is Muslim, condemning her for her short skirts, but no fatwa has been issued by Sunni clerics condemning al-Zarqawi's butchering of Iraqi Shiite children and teachers.

Some courageous Sunnis have begun to speak out. "One of the most bizarre phenomena of recent times has been the refusal of Arab governments to condemn terrorist acts in Iraq or to commiserate with the victims," Abdul Rahman al-Rashed wrote in the Saudi daily Asharq Al Awsat. He added, "Take the most recent atrocities in which more than 200 Iraqis lost their lives in two days of carnage: No Arab government raised its voice in condemnation, although most of them shrilly objected when the new Iraqi Constitution failed to mention that the country was part of the Arab nation. The official Arab position vis-a-vis Iraq has always been spineless."

So, folks, we are faltering in Iraq today in part because of the Bush team's incompetence, but also because of the moral vacuum in the Sunni Arab world, where the worst are engaged in murderous ethnic cleansing --- and trying to stifle any prospect of democracy here --- and the rest are too afraid, too weak, too lost or too anti-Shiite to do anything about it.

Maybe the cynical Europeans were right. Maybe this neighborhood is just beyond transformation. That will become clear in the next few months as we see just what kind of minority the Sunnis in Iraq intend to be. If they come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and we should stay to help build it. If they won't, then we are wasting our time.

We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind. We must not throw more good American lives after good American lives for people who hate others more than they love their own children.


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