As Iraqis reflect on crossed milestones, more landmark events, challenges await them

It was one landmark event after another for Iraqis the past week, crossing two major milestones with major political significance and deep emotional power: a vote on a divisive draft constitution, then the opening of the mass murder trial of ousted president Saddam Hussein.

Some hope that together the events can be a watershed, moving the country away from its stormy, bloody past and toward a future shaped by ballots _ not bullets.

But in an Iraq that has been polarized along ethnic and sectarian lines, the various groups view the events differently. And when they agree, it's mostly about the harsh realities of their daily life: lack of security, faltering electricity and long lines for gas.

Ahmed Mohammed, a Sunni, did not participate in the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution because he did not believe his vote would make a difference. For him to get involved in the political process, raids and arrests against Sunni Arabs must end, services be restored and security be realized.

Haidar Kadhim, a Shiite, did vote for the constitution, but he is still awaiting much of the same things that Mohammed wants.

"Electricity is the simplest thing. There is no power and no gas. These are the most important things," Kadhim said. "Maybe the constitution will improve the situation and will end terrorism."

While trying to dispel the widely held belief that they were favored by Saddam, many Sunni Arabs acknowledge they were overwhelmed by feelings of sympathy and, sometimes, even nostalgia, when they saw him sitting in a pen on Wednesday, tried by a Kurdish judge and accused by a Shiite prosecutor.

By contrast, the very same scene left many Shiites and Kurds _ both oppressed by Saddam _ joyous and relieved, even as it revived their deep hatred of Saddam's regime.

Redha Taqi, a senior Shiite politician, said seeing the larger-than-life Saddam reduced to a defendant very likely facing a death sentence should be a slap of reality for Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, pushing more of them to the political proccess. That, he argued, would ease the desire among some of Saddam's victims for revenge.

"There is a problem with the mentality of Sunni Arabs," he said. "Some of them are still thinking about the fact that they were the rulers of this country, which makes them feel that whatever they gain now is not good enough."

Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the trial will "will help the reconciliation efforts and the healing process."

But many Sunni Arabs complain that the Shiites and Kurds are using their newly found power to marginalize them, reduce their participation or settle scores.

The referendum provided signs of hope that Sunnis will try to use the democratic process to regain a balance in the country. Some Sunnis argued that their marginalization was their own fault after they boycotted January elections, allowing Shiites and Kurds to dominate the current parliament and government.

So they turned out in droves in the Oct. 15 referendum. True, many of them showed up to defeat a constitution they say will divide Iraq and argue favors their rivals. Their sheer participation could accord the process legitimacy. The government hopes it will also take the steam out of part of the insurgency, though greater Sunni participation in politics likely wouldn't dissuade the most hardcore insurgents, Iraqi Islamic militants or foreign fighters.

And Sunni Arabs may vote in even bigger numbers in general elections on Dec. 15 to appoint a new parliament.

In what may be seen as a setback to the referendum, announcing its results have been delayed in part because of an audit launched after an unusually high number of "yes" votes raised questions.

Elections officials have insisted the measure was merely taken to meet international standards, but the delay is already providing ammunition for those who challenge the process's credibility.

"They want to fabricate the results," said Emad al-Marsoumy, a Sunni Arab, who voted "no" to the constitution. "This will negatively affect the upcoming elections because whether I show up or not, I know that the result will be the same."

Ayad al-Samarraie _ a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni party that urged a "yes" vote to the constitution _ said he believed Sunnis would stay the course even if constitution passes despite their objections.

But for Sunnis to make a strong show in the upcoming elections, al-Samarraie and others need to win over those who remain skeptical, like Mohammed.

"Why should I express my opinion? Who will listen? The current government has already cooked the constitution with the Americans. They agreed to divide Iraq," Mohammed said.

Also, unlike Shiites and Kurds, Sunnis Arabs lack the unified religious or political leadership that can mobilize them in one direction.

So, in the coming days and weeks, the degree of commitment that Sunni Arabs show to the political process, the result of the referendum and the political horsetrading _ new coalitions may be struck and others may unravel _ will prove crucial to molding the face of a new Iraq.

In the next parliament, Sunnis want to make amendments to the constitution. And since it's all but certain that they won't win a majority in the legislature, forging alliances will be crucial.

Ayad Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite and a former prime minister is already reaching out to moderate and secular Sunnis among others who might come together in a possible coalition facing to the clerical-backed Shiite alliance that dominates the government since January's vote.

Mahmoud Othman, a legislator and a member of the Kurdish coalition that struck an alliance with the winning Shiites, said many Kurds are already not too happy with their religious-minded Shiite partners, whom they accuse of monopolizing power.

This opens the door for possible new alliances that may gave the Sunnis and others a more prominent role in the future.

But U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad cautioned that Sunnis should not have the wrong reasons in mind as they contest the political process.

"Of course, nostalgia for the past should not be a motive driving the political process here," he told local leaders in largely Sunni Fallujah on the referendum day. "Iraq can do a lot better.", AP reported. V.A.

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