Now that the religious political bloc of the Islamic Shiites has triumphed in the Iraqi National Assembly election, it can take the initiative in the transitional administration that follows the present interim government. The U.S. strategy of turning Iraq into a model of democratization for the Middle East would seem to be working, at least in a limited way.

Still, conditions in Iraq hardly reflect steady progress toward stability. Public order has been deteriorating as attacks and acts of terror by armed groups have intensified. Struggles reportedly have been brewing even among political parties over the appointment of leading officials in the transitional government. The new leadership must fulfill a heavy responsibility in building a new Iraq of national reconciliation that transcends religious and ethnic differences.

The United Iraqi Alliance of the Shiites won a clear majority to become the largest party in the assembly. The second largest is a powerful Kurdish alliance. As a result, religious and ethnic influences are expected to be strong in the country’s politics. If these differences should become entrenched, however, efforts to foster democracy will be stymied and the risk of open conflict will deepen. Ensuring national unity, therefore, is a matter of top priority.

Inevitably, the transitional government will face the daunting task of bringing the state together while showing respect for religious values and ethnic autonomy. In drafting a new constitution, the transitional government will have to overcome the problem of how to include the Sunni Iraqis, who boycotted the election.

If the Sunni faction is isolated, it will certainly destabilize Iraq’s future. The Islamic Party, the leading political party in the Sunni faction, is said to be ready to cooperate in preparing a new constitution, although hardliners, including the Association of Muslim Scholars, are reluctant to accept the legitimacy of the election.

The new constitution is to be drafted by August and then put to a national referendum for approval. With the emergence of the Shiite faction in the National Assembly election, there is concern that the constitution will have an excessive Islamic flavor. In fact, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme leader of the Shiite faction, has said the new constitution should state clearly that “Islam is the sole foundation of law.” In order to eliminate concerns about this aspect, a wide range of opinions should be incorporated into the new charter in accordance with the principle that sovereignty rests with the people. That is the starting point of democracy.

Behind these concerns lies the influence of Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, which is a Shiite Islamic state. In the past, the United States and the Arab countries have worried that Iran would “export an Islamic revolution.” In the Iran-Iraq War, both countries supported the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

Ironically, this time both Washington and Riyadh are greeting the emergence of the Shiites in Iraq, thus giving rise to anti-American sentiment among the Sunnis. Neighboring countries are concerned that a Iran-led “Shiite crescent belt” might stretch from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon.

The Kurdish alliance, which became the second-largest party after overtaking the dozens of other contending groups listed on the Jan. 30 ballot, is a secular party of Shiites. It advocates guaranteed rights for Kurds and a clear stipulation of a federal system in the constitution. Their demand for independence is deep-rooted. While their expanded right of self-government should be respected, the party should censure any moves toward separatism.

Since the election, public order has worsened in Iraq. At present, Iraq’s own security forces are not yet strong enough to ensure public security. That makes early withdrawal of the U.S. forces problematic. If the U.S. presence appears prolonged, however, anti-American sentiment among the Iraqi people will grow, providing an excuse for further terrorism.

Demands for the withdrawal of the U.S. military are strong not only among the Sunnis, whose cooperation with the transitional government is premised on clarification of the U.S. military’s withdrawal schedule, but also among the Shiites.

On the occasion of the inauguration of a transitional government, the U.S. should set about the task of formulating a scenario for its exit. That in itself could signify a shortcut leading to the stabilization of Iraq.

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