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.