We now have some tentative data on Sunni Arab participation in the referendum on Iraq’s constitution. It looks like good news to me:

Turnout among registered voters reached 88 percent in Salahuddin Province, the birthplace of the deposed Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, and 58 percent in Nineveh, a Sunni-majority province that has been torn by violence, according to statistics released by the Independent Election Commission of Iraq. Turnout in the January elections was about 29 and 17 percent in Salahuddin and Nineveh, respectively.

The turnout in Salahuddin Province for the constitutional referendum was the second-highest in the country, trailing only Kurdish-dominated Erbil.

In Anbar Province, the other big Sunni region, the turnout for the referendum reached 30 percent on Saturday, according to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the American military here. If that estimate proves to be true, it would represent a 15-fold increase over the January parliamentary elections, when only about 2 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

These numbers may be adjusted, so some caution is merited. And they can be interpreted in several ways. The most pessimistic is that Sunni Arabs have tried democracy and been so rebuffed they will become more embittered, and so keep providing cover for the insurgency. The most optimistic is that they have decisively realized they need to stay in the political process to make gains. I’d say the optimism is the better analysis. We will continue to have violence. What matters is that the violence does not derail the political process and does not deeply damage the economic infrastructure. What the Sunni Arab vote represents is the decision of many Sunnis to join the political process. That’s a big gain. If the political haggling continues and Sunnis gain some concessions in the coming weeks and months, we could have a small, gradual breakthrough. That’s the hope. It looks increasingly like a reality.


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