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by Archives October 19, 2005

While the votes are still being tallied, early results indicate that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis voted in favor of ratifying the draft constitution on Saturday, and the constitution appears ready to become law. But while majority approval of the charter was widely predicted, the results did contain some big surprises.

Iraq’s Shia Muslims, who represent 60 per cent of the country’s population, were expected to vote yes on the constitution, and they did. The Kurdish minority, which makes up approximately 17 per cent of Iraq’s people, also voted in favor. No surprises there. What is surprising is that they voted yes by such a wide margin that they triggered an inquiry into the results. 12 of Iraq’s 18 provinces voted for the constitution by margins of 90 per cent or higher, and while some news organizations are spinning it as possible “electoral fraud”, spokesmen for Iraq’s Electoral Commission have explained that the inquiries are automatic, and no one expected even one of those 12 provinces to vote against it.

What’s most surprising about the results of Saturday’s vote is that Iraq’s 20 per cent Sunni minority, which ruled the country from the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, didn’t vote no as overwhelmingly as expected.

This is especially significant because a two-thirds majority vote against the constitution in just three of the four Sunni-dominated provinces would have acted as a veto, sinking the constitution regardless of how the rest of the country voted. Many analysts had predicted that all four of the provinces could vote against the charter, and at least three would strike it down decisively. But only two provinces reached the two-thirds requirement, and the other two seem to have actually voted in favor of the constitution, albeit by narrow majorities. While the results come as a surprise to people who follow the news, they’re not as unlikely as they seem at first glance.

The assumption that all the members of Iraq’s Sunni minority would oppose the charter was founded on a false premise: That the acts of the Sunni-led insurgency reflect the desires of the entire Sunni population. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that 100 per cent of the Sunni Muslims who detonate car bombs near crowded markets and mosques in Shia neighborhoods are firmly against the idea of a democratic Iraq. But these people do not speak for the Sunni population as a whole, and if Saturday’s results are any indication, many of Iraq’s Sunni citizens seems ready to fight for their rights within a democratic process rather than in the streets.

The dramatic increase in voter turnout in Sunni-dominated areas compared to January’s parliamentary elections, encouraged by Sunni civil and religious leaders, did produce an enormous number of votes against the constitution. But the very act of voting en masse highlights the deepening divide between Iraq’s indigenous Sunni population, which remains skeptical of, if not hostile to, the idea of living in a Shia-dominated political system, and the foreign-born insurgents, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who remain fully committed to killing as many civilians, soldiers, police officers and government workers as they possibly can. The foreign insurgents see Iraq as a mere battlefield for the war between Islam and the West, and are more than willing to destroy the entire country in order to win the “greater victory” of forcing an American withdrawal. Iraq isn’t their home anyway, so the concerns of its civilian population matter little to them.

But Iraq’s Sunni minority didn’t just travel to the country to fight. They actually live there, and the insurgents’ Pyrrhic victory isn’t their idea of a bright future. As the average Sunni Iraqi becomes more confident that they won’t be disenfranchised by the Shia and Kurds, and will get their fair share of the country’s oil wealth, the acts of indiscriminate mass-murder conducted by the foreign insurgents will probably appear less and less justifiable and more and more repulsive to them. And as they begin to exercise the power that devolves to them in Iraq’s federal system of government, the prospect of losing control over their lives to a small group of foreign fanatics becomes less and less attractive.

No one expects the Sunni minority in Iraq to celebrate their loss of supremacy or laud the presence of foreign troops in their country. Not only would that be unrealistic, it’s also totally unnecessary. All that’s needed for Iraq to have a stable future is for the average Sunni citizen to buy into the process of representative democracy and to renounce violence as a means of achieving their goals. Then Iraq’s various ethnicities can berate one another in a free press, form unwieldy coalitions of disparate interest groups, get bogged down in the endless bickering of parliamentary process, and curse the governments they elect without fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Messy? Of course. Inefficient? Definitely. But as the author of Iraq’s borders was known to quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government ever tried, except for all the others.”

Neglected Story of the Week: While bird flu has yet to capture the imaginations of North Americans, Europeans just got a wakeup call. The first case of avian flu in Europe has been discovered in a turkey in Greece. This follows recent discoveries in Romania and Turkey, which are frantically culling thousands of birds in order to slow the spread of the lethal virus.

Add to this scientists’ recent discovery that the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed between 25 and 50 million people worldwide in less than a year, was actually a bird flu and you have what may turn out to the biggest story of the century. Here’s hoping that virologists come up with a vaccine before it causes a global epidemic, so that this story can remain neglected.

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