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Published: Thursday, 4/14/2005

Next, an Iraqi constitution

THE choice by the Iraqi parliament of a multi-element government is a step forward in the process of preparing the country for a return to self-rule. Just as significantly, it could lead to a progressive reduction of U.S. involvement.

The Iraqi parliament, elected Jan. 30, took 10 weeks but finally completed a roster of president, vice presidents, prime minister, and parliament speaker that included representatives of the Kurds and Shiite and Sunni Muslims in a single government.

The next job for the parliament and the government is to develop a constitution. That task is scheduled to be completed by August. The long delay in naming the government automatically makes that target problematic at best, although President Jalal Talabani says it is still possible.

A greater barrier is the complexity of the issues that must be resolved to produce the constitution. First and foremost is the determination of the relationship between the different important building blocks in what is the Iraqi population. The Shiites, who account for 60 percent of the population, want a government as centralized as possible to reflect their majority position.

The Kurds, who make up 20 percent, want as much autonomy as they can get. The Sunnis, who have the other roughly 20 percent, are still seething over no longer ruling the place and will try to "structure" themselves into greater power than their percentage would typically give them.

Behind all this lies the issue of continued U.S. occupation. Thousands of Shiites demonstrated against it in Baghdad on Saturday. Some U.S. military leaders have indicated that they believe significant reductions in the 150,000 U.S. troops can be achieved in 2006, but President Bush remains silent on a timetable for bringing the forces home. In the meantime, U.S. losses in Iraq have risen to 1,547 and estimated costs of the war are well over $200 billion.

The process to Iraqi self-determination may be working out, although the road ahead still looks rocky. A statement by Mr. Bush on how many U.S. forces can be withdrawn, and on what timetable, could serve as a strong incentive to Iraqis to draft a constitution faster than they chose a government.

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