The referendum on the Iraqi constitution is over and, by all accounts, went rather swimmingly under circumstances. My colleague Bill Roggio takes a pretty good look at the situation and concludes that the end-result is net victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq. I concur with this assessment, but it is worth noting this passage from Anthony Cordesman's definitive Iraq's Evolving Insurgency in which he states several times:
There also will almost certainly be at least another year of intensive fighting against Islamist and extremist elements that will reject inclusion in the political process almost regardless of what political system emerges during the coming elections. There are only three ways to deal with Iraq’s most hard-line elements: Kill them, imprison them, or drive them out of the country. There is a very real war to fight, and it is still unclear when or if Iraqi forces will really be ready to fight it with anything like the total numbers required.
This is a key realization that needs to be understood alongside any celebration of the very real success achieved yesterday with respect to the constitutional referendum. However, the realization that Zarqawi does not have a significant popular support base inside Iraq was one of the major events that came out of the January 30 elections, as was the fact that he is extremely limited with regard to carrying out attacks outside his geographic base in the Sunni Triangle. Both of these realizations were extremely important developments, as they were both extremely unclear prior January 30, but it is nice to see that both have withheld the test of time with respect to the current referendum.
That said, Zarqawi does not require the support of all or even most Iraqi Sunnis to continue his terror campaign. Without getting very far into the numbers game, if only has a core of 5,000 fighters about 50,000 supporters, that should be more than enough to sustain al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies like Ansar al-Sunnah for the time being. Note that this doesn't even begin to address those insurgent groups that are participating in political discussions through their various proxies like the Association of Muslim Scholars or similar organizations.
Now please don't get me wrong, it's certainly wonderful to note that so many Iraqis aren't buying what Zarqawi is selling or that his operational reach is limited. These are all extremely good things and should be recognized as such by everyone, as I'm sure my colleague Eric will agree. There are now a serious questions, however, as far as what happens next.
As it now stands, the constitution looks almost assured of passage despite the strong Sunni efforts to defeat it. The big issue now, though, is what comes next for the Sunnis. Do they return to the insurgency in earnest, do they wholeheartedly embrace the political game, or some combination of the two? Or will their efforts as a community splinter, with various groups going one way and others going another?
Eric expressed much the same concerns in this comment:
Will this vote convince the insurgencies to stop? Will it drain support from the Sunni regions? Will it help to bridge the divides between Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites? Will even the Shiites and Kurds continue to work together now that the document they wanted is enshrined? What exactly about this vote will translate into any of those positive outcomes? What is the mechanism?
I honestly don't know the answers to those questions one way or another, but my guess is that we'll all find out pretty soon. One thing to keep in mind though is that earlier quote from Cordesman that even if everything goes absolutely wonderful as far as the political process is concerned, the Iraqis are still going to have a major fight on their hands against Zarqawi and his allies. Depending on how the Sunnis choose to approach the political process from this point forward could either accelerate or draw out that fight, but either way it's one that's going to happen sooner or later.
One final point that I once made to my good friend Aziz some time ago on the issue of what it means to have a real democracy in Iraq is for both sides to accept the results of the popular will without resorting to violence. In this way, I actually thought that it was something of a positive development for Allawi to lose the January 30 elections and then give up power voluntarily without going underground or declaring some kind of a permanent state of emergency to keep the United Iraqi Alliance from taking charge of the parliament. In a similar way, if Iraq is going to be a successful democracy, particularly once US troops are withdrawn, the Sunnis are going to have to accept the results of the constitutional referendum without going underground and launching a campaign to bring down the government. Same thing goes for both sides with respect to the December elections and so on and I think that ultimately that's going to be the biggest challenge for all quarters to accept given that much of Iraqi politics prior to this point have more or less been a zero-sum game.