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After the vote

THE MILLIONS of Iraqis who turned up at polling stations Sunday despite threats to wash the streets with their blood expressed a complex popular will. Many told of a wish to banish forever the nightmare of Saddam Hussein's despotism. Others wanted to say "no" to the Ba'athist remnants and Islamist fanatics who have been murdering Iraqis in the name of an ethnic or sectarian supremacy. Some were voting to hasten the day when American and other foreign soldiers would leave Iraq.

The voters' bravery was stirring as they voted for a Transitional National Assembly to draft a constitution and appoint a government meant to serve until elections by the end of this year. Even so, Sunday's vote cannot, by itself, resolve the daunting problems looming over Iraq's future. The turnout will not efface Iraq's horrific security problems. No matter the results, the election will not persuade the vicious, well-funded, and heavily armed Ba'athists behind much of the insurgency to desist from their war to restore a new version of their regime. Nor will the local and foreign Islamists -- who denounced democracy as an infidel ideology -- suddenly see the light and decide to honor the will of the Iraqi people as manifest at the ballot box.

By the same token, Sunday's inspiring expression of Iraqis' desire for self-determination will not automatically bring about the departure of the US and foreign forces.

If Iraqis are to have a chance of attaining the goals of the courageous citizens who showed up to vote Sunday, their elected representatives will have to act wisely to knit together a society that is being torn apart by forces of fragmentation.

To begin healing the historic rift between Sunnis and Shi'ites, the Shi'ite majority sure to emerge in a newly elected assembly will have to avoid any temptation to take revenge for past harms inflicted by Sunni rulers. The Shi'ites and Kurds must bend over backward to ensure that Sunni Arabs will have a meaningful role in the new transitional government and in drafting a constitution.

Since the government and the committee to draft a constitution will be appointed, it will require political wisdom on the part of Shi'ites and Kurds to grant Sunnis roles in both bodies that are commensurate with the Sunni share of Iraq's population. The purpose will be to welcome Sunnis into a peaceful power-sharing arrangement, subtracting from the extremist camp those willing to play the democratic game of bargaining for their interests. Iraq's elected representatives must also keep the country unified by giving the Kurds considerable regional autonomy and working out a plan for the end of foreign occupation.

These will not be easy tasks, but they may be accomplished if the Iraqi voters finally get a government they deserve. 

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