Two developments in the past few days crack open the possibility that a Yes vote on Iraq's constitution this weekend might mark a small step toward a stable, somewhat democratic government after all. Note: That's "small step," not "giant leap," and "possibility," not "probability"—more like a sliver of a hope—but the picture is brighter than it was two weeks ago, when I wrote (as did others) that the Iraqis would be better off if they voted the document down.
The first event was the widely reported deal in which several Sunni leaders agreed to endorse the constitution in exchange for a Shiite pledge that the new Iraqi parliament—to be elected this December—will consider substantive amendments.
The second was the publication—on the U.S. national intelligence director's official Web site—of a private letter, said to be written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of Osama Bin Laden's top advisers, urging Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida's Iraq chapter, to stop killing fellow Muslims, lest he alienate the Arab masses and thus endanger the jihadists' long-term strategy.
The connection between these two bits of news is that the first could disrupt the second—in other words, that further negotiations and compromises over the constitution might weaken the standing of foreign terrorists in Iraq. And, judging from the letter, al-Qaida's leaders seem to realize this.
Until this week, Sunni leaders opposed the constitution unanimously; the only debate among them was whether to vote against it or to boycott the referendum. In their view, the constitution strengthened the Kurdish and Shiite regions in the north and south of the country, leaving the Sunnis in the center with no power or resources. Moreover, they were systematically excluded from crucial stages of the document's drafting.
There's a temptation to respond: So what? The Sunnis are a minority; they were the bulwark of Saddam Hussein's regime, under which the Kurds and Shiites suffered grievously.
But focusing back on reality, it's clear that Sunni disaffection will keep Iraq perpetually in turmoil. The Iraqi insurgency is, by and large, a Sunni insurgency. It consists of three main elements: Baathist holdovers who want their power restored, nationalists resisting the American occupation, and Islamic jihadists exploiting the resentment. The jihadists are the smallest in number but the most ferocious in their violence.
Some Americans and Iraqis have long realized that the only way to win this conflict is to separate and isolate the jihadists on the one hand from the Baathists and nationalists on the other. One way to do this is to give the latter factions a piece of the power and thus a stake in the system—an incentive to help make normal politics work.
This is why, a week or two ago, rejecting the constitution seemed in Iraq's long-term interest; the document, as it stood, would severely restrict the Sunnis' power, give them no stake in the system, and therefore likely swell the insurgency's ranks.
But if the Shiites and Kurds are sincerely committed to extending negotiations, conducting them with a wider array of Sunni leaders, and considering substantive amendments, maybe—maybe—it's not too late to hammer together some legitimate framework for governance.
Here's where the Zawahiri letter comes in. Zawahiri understands that this sort of reconciliation or co-optation is the biggest threat to the jihadists' goals. In fact, he seems to understand it more clearly than many Americans. He writes in his letter:
The strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoys … is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq and the surrounding Muslim countries. … In the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahedeen movement will be crushed in the shadows. … This is precisely what the secular, apostate forces that are controlling our countries are striving for. These forces don't desire to wipe out the mujahedeen Islamic movement; rather they are stealthily striving to separate it from the misguided or frightened Muslim masses. Therefore, our planning must strive to involve the Muslim masses in the battle.
He goes on that eventually the jihadists must collide with the Shiites—who, in the Sunni view, are illegitimate Muslims. However, for now, he adds:
The majority of Muslims don't comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it. For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. … My opinion is that this matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace, however much you have tried to explain it. … You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men. … They do not express the general views of the admirers and supporters of the resistance in Iraq.
"It's imperative that there be an appeasement of [all] Muslims," he emphasizes in the long-familiar language of a popular front. Later, again: "I repeat the warning against separating from the masses, whatever the danger."
Two things should be highlighted about these warnings. First, they weren't heeded. This letter was written July 9, yet Zarqawi's thugs continue to kill Shiites. Second, the letter seems to signal a growing split not only between the jihadists and their potential allies in the resistance—the split that Zawahiri fears could spell doom for al-Qaida's prospects—but also within al-Qaida itself.
If the Iraqi Constitution passes—and if it does so because a sizable group of Sunni leaders has endorsed it and can bring their followers to the polling stations—these wedges could widen further.
Three important caveats (apart from the repeated use of qualifiers like could, might, and maybe that run throughout this quite possibly rosy-eyed scenario):
First, it's unclear how many Sunni leaders now endorse the constitution and how many still oppose it—or how much strength and influence any of them really have.
Second, Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, is right to be skeptical of this deal, noting that the Sunnis will be a minority in the parliament and that the Shiites and Kurds—who have promised only to "consider" constitutional amendments—could easily crush all proposals for compromise. For that reason, the United States has to apply tremendous pressure on the Shiites, in particular, to make good on not just the letter but the spirit of their pledge. (It would also be good, this time, to work behind the scenes, to avoid the appearance of an occupier.)
Third, it is not clear whether this letter is authentic or, if it is, to whom it was sent. It's signed "Your loving brother, Abu Muhammad," indicating Zawahiri. But there's something odd about the DNI's claim that the letter was addressed to Zarqawi. Near the end of the letter, he writes, "By God, if by chance you're going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Clearly, he wouldn't tell Zarqawi to send greetings to himself. Could the letter have been intended for one of Zarqawi's aides? (Thursday afternoon, I asked a National Security Council spokesman about this anomaly. He replied, "Hmm," and said he'd get back to me. So far, he hasn't.)
Al-Qaida released a statement Thursday, dismissing the letter as a U.S. fabrication. I doubt this is so. John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, can be a diabolical fellow, but if he and his chums forged the note with the intent of claiming it was sent to Zarqawi, why would they scribble this greeting? Juan Cole, in his blog entry today, cites peculiarly un-Sunni-like language in the letter and speculates that it's a Shiite forgery.
If it is a fabrication, it's a damned clever one. It implicitly sends three messages to three different audiences: 1) to dissuade Americans from pulling out of Iraq (the letter says al-Qaida's strategy is to kick the U.S. troops out and then establish an Islamic caliphate across the region); 2) to sow suspicion and dissension within al-Qaida's ranks; and 3) to convince Sunni insurgents (and Shiite radicals) that the jihadists are exploiting them and are really their enemies.
If the letter is real, making it public might send the same three messages. No doubt that's why Negroponte took the highly unusual step of putting it up on his agency's Web site—in an English translation and in the Arabic original (so those who read both languages can attest to its accuracy).
In any case, Saturday's referendum could be crucial. The result to watch is not only whether the constitution passes or fails, but even more whether the Sunnis turn out to vote—and then, in the next few months, what the Shiites and Kurds do in response.