Every time I hear advocates for Iraq's Sunni Muslims urge postponement of the January 30 vote I recall legendary lawyer Louis Nizer's story about dissenting members of a corporate board of directors who, after tossing their colleagues out the window, promptly moved to adjourn for the absence of a quorum.
The Sunnis have reason to be unhappy. For nearly a century under the assortment of kings and cut-throats that ran Baghdad, they dominated Iraq. The Shiites in the South outnumbered them nearly three to one and the Kurds in the north were their numerical equal. But Sunnis dominated the government, the military, the police, higher education, business, and the Baath political party. Moreover, when Saddam Hussein chased the starving and frozen Kurds to the mountains of Turkey and turned his southern guns on the Shiites, killing 300,000 of them, the Sunnis were not at risk. In a democratic society, or even one with rough representative government, their influence would more reflect their numbers.
Small wonder that military and political insurgents, not to mention the terrorists who roll car bombs into crowded markets, massacre police trainees and slit the throats of aid dispensers, have come mainly from the ranks of Sunnis about to see political power redistributed. Small wonder their four provinces are the least secure among Iraq's eighteen.
The arguments for delaying the vote are not entirely frivolous. Mainstream Sunni political and religious leaders say they need time for things to settle down. Their voices are augmented by a sprinkling of Americans who see the risk of greater violence, even civil war if the Sunnis are dealt substantially out of the game. Hold off the elections, they urge. Revise the voting formula to ensure representation from the Sunni geographic regions. Then hold a vote.
But postponement carries even greater risks. One is the awful precedent of rewarding terrorism. Scuttle an election because of insurgent treachery and the likely result would be more, not less treachery. This is a volatile area where limiting the plebiscite to those of saintly disposition would be futile. But as we have seen recently in the case of the Palestinians, a minimal commitment to shun violence is a fair price to pay for participation in the political process. One must choose between the ballot and the gun.
An even greater danger would be delivering a political insult of devastating proportion to Iraq's Shiites. If Sunni violence can delay majority rule, then Shiites might conclude that their own violence can restore it. And a Shiite-Sunni clash would provide all kinds of opportunities for mischief to Iran, the neighboring Shiite power.
Far better to hold the scheduled elections for the 275-member legislature charged with drafting a constitution, and reach out to the Sunnis through that body. Some might be brought immediately into government. The constitution can be tailored to protect regional as well as religious representational interests, just as women are guaranteed 20 percent of the seats in the new legislature.
Dissenters ask whether an election where some can't vote can pass the test of international legitimacy. Which brings us back to Mr. Nizer and his quorum call.