Iraq is mired in a Catch-22. The country is unstable because the government lacks legitimacy. The government lacks legitimacy because it wasn't elected. And you can't have elections because the country is unstable.
There may be a way to reverse this grim spiral of logic, a way to create legitimate governance and in the process peacefully disarm insurgents in Najaf, Falluja, and elsewhere. The key is to realize that elections can be incremental. They can occur in stable parts of the country before occurring in unstable parts. Moreover, successful elections in the stable parts could help peacefully stabilize the other parts, including, ultimately, the Sunni triangle.
The chain reaction could begin with President Bush and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi jointly giving Ayatollah al-Sistani a simple, ironclad guarantee: You will get elections in the predominantly Shiite part of Iraq on Oct. 1 so long as unauthorized militias are disarmed by June 15 and the Shiite insurgency ends. (Residual terrorism by Sunnis trying to disrupt elections could be kept to a tolerable level if Shiites were united in trying to preserve order.) Then, on Dec. 31, the winners of the election will be sworn in to a regional parliament that governs the Shiite part of Iraq.
This guarantee would allow al-Sistani to deliver a powerful message to Shiites: We can enter the promised land by the end of this year if Muqtada Sadr disbands his militia and other aspiring insurgents also cease and desist. The pressure on Sadr to comply would be intense.
To maximize this pressure, the United States and the United Nations could promise that the newly elected regional government would have something close to true sovereignty. If on Jan. 1, the government told coalition soldiers to retreat to remote barracks until called on, they would do so. If it told them to vacate the Shiite region entirely, they would do so within a reasonable period of time.
The offer of Oct. 1 elections would be open to all regions, and the Kurdish North, which already has a functioning parliament, presumably would qualify for them. The predominantly Sunni Arab region presumably would not. Thus, on Jan. 1, there would be a parliament in the Kurdish region and a parliament in the Shiite region, each governing its own territory. Periodically, the two would convene jointly to handle the relatively few governmental functions residing at the national level. One premise of this plan—and probably of any viable plan—is that the new Iraqi government would be decentralized, perhaps as loose a federation as envisioned by former Council on Foreign Relations President Leslie Gelb and, more recently, former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith. (Slate'sTim Noah recently appraised their approaches.)
And what of the Sunni triangle? The example of democracy—and real sovereignty—in the mainly Shiite and Kurdish parts of Iraq could inspire Sunni support for elections and thus reduce support for insurgents, perhaps carrying it below the insurgency's subsistence level. (Why keep fighting American soldiers once the Shiites have shown that you can just tell them to get lost?) Here the much-feared rivalry among Iraq's ethnicities could become an asset, creating a competitive impetus toward orderly self-government. In fact, the Sunnis' envy of their neighbors' newfound freedom might acquire a productive undercurrent of anxiety as they watched the Shiite region build its militia. A further incentive for Sunni Arabs to join the larger Iraq via elections would be the fact that Iraq's oil lies largely outside the Sunni triangle: Act now, or risk going forever without a chunk of oil revenues.
But even if Sunni elections weren't forthcoming, America would have already extracted itself from half the mess it's now in. And if coalition forces continued to police the Sunni triangle under U.N. sanction, troops now in Shiite Iraq would be freed up to help.
For this plan to fully succeed, many delicate details would have to be worked out. The structure of the national government—which should be clearly and firmly articulated before the plan is set in motion—would have to assuage the fears of the two big minority blocks, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, about the tyranny of a Shiite majority.
And drawing regional boundaries across Iraq's ethnically mottled landscape would be dicey. No borders, no matter how sinuous, would create three homogenous regions. So, the United Nations and United States would have to do what they could to protect intra-regional minority rights—both by putting them in writing and by defending them during the transition to sovereignty. As for Iraq's diverse capital: Greater Baghdad might usefully constitute a fourth region. With its substantial ethnic links to the other three regions, it would stand a chance of exerting a unifying force as long as it belonged to none of them. (Another diverse place—oil-rich Kirkuk, claimed by both Kurds and Sunni Arabs—might become a U.N. protectorate, its ultimate governance to be determined later.)