The New York Times

April 2, 2004

Four Deaths in Falluja

The emotional force of those pictures of burned Americans hanging from a bridge in the Iraqi town of Falluja was devastating. While hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis have been killed in this war and more will certainly follow, the grisly deaths of these four security consultants ambushed, burned, mutilated, dragged through the streets struck a deep nerve.

At the same time, letting those emotions shape the future of American occupation policy in Iraq pushing it either toward vengeful reprisals or toward a panicky, casualty-driven withdrawal would be a terrible mistake. America's future course in Iraq must be decided on broader considerations, especially the prospects for successful nation-building.

The United States cannot afford to paper over the real situation in Iraq with the sort of facile slogans, political spin and wishful thinking that have largely characterized the debate so far and are likely to become even more dominant as the November election approaches.

Decisions will not be any easier to make after the election, and policy choices still available today may have evaporated in six months. That especially applies to the course this page has long championed: a more multilateral approach under the United Nations' leadership. The chances of achieving that are slowly ebbing as the Bush administration's arbitrary June 30 deadline for handing power to Iraqis approaches with no workable political architecture in sight.

What the horrific images from Falluja should convey is that the fundamental problem is in Iraq itself. The White House and its spokesmen regale Americans with tales of inflated political progress, but the only real progress has been in areas like restoring vital services. Utility-building is not nation-building, and no answers have yet been found to the basic constitutional conundrum in Iraq.

Led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite majority, persecuted for decades, insists on a version of democracy that enshrines Shiite domination and fails to offer needed protections for minority groups. This is clearly unacceptable to the Sunni minority in places like Falluja, and to the Kurds. It is also fiercely resisted by Iraq's Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors. The ideal answer is the kind of democratic federalism, with strong minority protections, that the Shiites consistently reject. No one not Americans, Europeans or the U.N. can impose a pluralistic democracy at gunpoint and make it stick. That can happen only if enough influential Iraqis from all three communities embrace a workable constitution and defend it against its many armed enemies.

Wednesday's horror in Falluja underscores the need for an honest discussion about how, and whether, America and other countries can help Iraqis build a viable nation.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company