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October Surprise
It's looking good in Iraq.


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Just when the conventional wisdom’s pessimism about Iraq was peaking, a group of Iraqi oppositionists had a sudden attack of common sense. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), the largest of the predominantly Sunni parties, along with a Sunni coalition group called the Conference of the People of Iraq, agreed to minor changes in the draft constitution that made it palatable enough for them to recommend a “yes” vote in Saturday’s referendum. The deal makes the constitution easier to amend, and establishes a panel that will review the document to propose amendments and other alterations. Approval of the document now seems virtually assured, and with enough Sunni participation to give it national and international legitimacy.

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Common sense came into play when the IIP and others paused to look at their alternatives. If the Sunnis who opposed the constitution managed to defeat it Saturday, Iraq would continue to be governed under the current administrative law, under which they have very little influence. If the constitution passed, they would be stuck with the new system and still have little power, not to mention insufficient moral authority to seek future changes. After all, one of the reasons they have found themselves in this fix in the first place was their misguided boycott of the January 2005 elections. After having secured a minimally acceptable deal, their best option was to sign onto the pro-constitution team and try to fix it after the election.

The last-minute deal is bad news for the remaining opposition groups. The Sunni-based Association of Muslim Scholars, which had been aligned with the IIP as recently as Saturday, denounced the agreement as politically naïve. The Victorious Army Group (Jeish al-Ta’eifa al-Mansoura) declared war on the IIP and stated that they would kill their members wherever they found them. In fact the IIP has already been targeted for its get-out-the-vote efforts–last August three election workers (then trying to drum up “no” votes) were brutally murdered in Mosul in broad daylight, their bodies dumped in a pile with their election materials.

The election workers were probably killed not by Sunni insurgents but by al Qaeda’s foreign fighters, who are ideologically opposed to any voting whatsoever. They now find themselves in a difficult situation. Before this week they had been trying to convince or coerce Sunnis not to vote at all, even though most groups had already mobilized behind the “no” campaign. On October 5, Zarqawi’s group issued a statement arguing that the vote count was rigged in advance, and any Sunni participation would simply “legitimize the oppression.” (This is a step back from the earlier al Qaeda argument that anyone who voted was an apostate who would be killed. That talking point probably wasn’t playing well.) Now the foreign fighters have to contend with a substantial number of “yes” voters in the Sunni areas, and the possibility that the constitution will pass in every Iraqi province. It is further evidence of the widening gap between al Qaeda’s interests and those of the Sunnis on whom they depend for support and sanctuary.

These developments coincide with the release of a letter from al Qaeda #2 Ayman al Zawahiri to Zarqawi, captured d last Julye lengthy communiqué is interesting on many levels–as an example of internal communications within the terrorist network, as a statement of al Qaeda strategy, for confirming that Iraq is the central front in the terror war–and it is well worth reading in full. Of particular note is Zawahiri’s analysis of Zarqawi’s media campaign, which presents him as the “Shaykh of the Slaughterers,” the Master Beheader, striking fear into the infidels with his mighty blade, and so forth. Zawahiri acknowledges the importance of media; “we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds” of the people he says, and the press is “more than half the battle.” But the beheading thing–it just isn’t working. Next time use a bullet, it’s just as effective. Don’t get me wrong, Zawahiri says, the infidels killed my favorite wife and several of my children, I hate them as much as anyone, but this decapitation thing, “we don’t need this.” It is significant when the al Qaeda front office is telling one of its underbosses to ramp back the bloodshed.

Hearts and minds are important to al Qaeda; they would like to expand their popular base in Iraq, and not repeat the errors of the Taliban in Afghanistan who remained aloof and insular. But as the letter shows, al Qaeda sees itself as the vanguard party destined to rule in Iraq, whether with the cooperation of the locals or not. They believe the Coalition will cut and run some day soon, the way the U.S. did in Vietnam, and al Qaeda has to be ready to exploit the opportunity when it arrives. However, the Islamist movement’s hostility to any form of electoral politics shows an acute lack of political shrewdness. Vladimir Lenin, no fan of democracy, thought a doctrinaire refusal to participate in elections was symptomatic of an “infantile disorder.” Extremists should always get involved in elections, to subvert the system from within. Of course, since al Qaeda is comprised mostly of foreigners they would be ineligible to participate anyway, but the concept of front groups, political wings and other such devices perfected by the communists to destroy democracies seems to be lost on them.

Democracy is more popular in Iraq than al Qaeda would like. Recent opinion polls show that turnout in the referendum will exceed that of the January election. But since the terrorists have declared electoral participation a heresy punishable by death, they have erected a firm barrier between their movement and the masses, and limited their options to violence. Attacks have increased markedly in recent weeks, but this is more a sign of terrorist frustration than anything else. They have gained nothing beyond a body count. If the terrorists seek to depress turnout by violence in the Sunni areas, they will only help the pro-constitution forces by scaring off the remaining “no” voters. If they refrain from attacking, they cannot influence the process at all.

Those who call Iraq a “quagmire” and advocate a cut-and-run strategy play directly into the hands of the terrorists. Al Qaeda would love to see us depart before the new Iraqi government is fully in place–Zawahiri said as much in the letter. But the political reform effort is continuing on schedule, and the large opposition parties are showing they are more sophisticated than they have been given credit for. The supporters of violence are dwindling even as the terrorists become more aggressive. On Saturday, the Iraqi people will make another public stand in favor of peaceful political change. We will again see long lines of voters, ink-stained fingers, happy faces, and children playing in the streets. Democracy on the march. It’s enough to make a terrorist weep.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.



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